Birds – American Avocet

(Recurvirostra americana)


Length—16 to 20 inches.

Male and Female: In summer—White, changing into cinnamon, on neck and head; shoulders and wings brownish black, except the middle coverts, the tips of the greater ones, and part of the secondaries, which are white. Very long, excessively slender black bill, curved upward. Legs very long and of a dull blue. In winter: Similar, but head and neck ashy or pearl gray like the tail.

Range—Temperate North America, nesting from Texas north-ward to Great Slave Lake, and wintering in Central America and the West Indies. Rare in the eastern United States. Irregularly common in the interior.

Season—Summer resident or spring and autumn migrant.

The avocet, like the skimmer, the sea parrot, and the curlew, possesses one of the most extraordinary bills any bird wears. Slowly swinging it from side to side, as a farmer moves his scythe, the eccentric looking bird wades about in the shallows, feeling on the bottom for food that cannot be seen through the muddy water. Often the entire head and neck must be immersed to probe the mud for some small shell fish and worms that the sensitive, needle-like bill dislodges. A leader usually directs the motions of a small flock that follows him through thick and thin, mud and water; or, if the water suddenly deepens, off swim the birds until their feet strike bottom again, and the mowing motion is resumed, while the sickle bills feel and probe and jerk as the mowers move along deliberately and gracefully. The curlew’s tool, the true sickle-bill, curves downward, just the reverse of the avocet’s; neither is it used under water.

The avocet is, perhaps, the best swimmer among the waders, owing to its webbed toes. The thick, waterproof plumage of its under parts keeps its body dry. When about to alight it chooses either water or land, indifferently; but it is al-ways especially abundant in or about the alkaline marshes of the interior. Not at all shy of man, it pays little attention to him unless positively pestered, when, springing into the air, and trailing its long legs stiffly behind to balance its outstretched neck, it flaps leisurely away to no great distance, calling back click, click, click, a sharp and plaintive cry. A long sail on motionless wings, and a drift downward, brings the bird to the ground again, but tottering at first, as if it took time to regain its equilibrium, just like a stilt. On alighting, it strikes an exquisite pose, lifting its wings till they meet over its back, like the terns and plovers, before folding them away under the feathers on its side.

The nest is a mere depression in the ground, in a tuft of thick grass growing in some marshy place, and it may be lined with fine grasses, though such luxury is not customary. Three or four pale olive or yellowish clay colored eggs, thickly spotted with chocolate brown, are a complement. Near such a spot, the birds become clamorous and excitable, the entire colony resenting any liberty taken by an intruder carrying no more alarming weapon than a field glass. Still, a male avocet, lost in rose colored day dreams as he paces up and down near his nest, like the willet, on sentinel duty, rarely sees any-thing that is not directly in his way.