Birds – Greater Yellowlegs

(Totanus melanoleucus)


Length—13 to 14 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts dark ashy speckled with white; the head and neck streaked; the back and wings spotted; space over eye and the throat white; tail dusky, with numerous white bars; the white breast heavily spotted with black; sides barred; underneath plain white. (Winter and immature birds have the upper parts more ashy or gray, and almost black in summer, and the markings on sides and breast fade in autumn.) Bill two inches long or over; long, slender, yellow legs.

Range—America in general, nesting from Iowa and northern Illinois northward, and wintering from the Gulf states to Patagonia.

Season—Chiefly a spring and autumn visitor; April, May; July to November.

A “flute-like whistle, when, wheu-wheu-wheu-wheu, when, when-when,” familiar music to the sportsmen in the marshes, tells the tale of the yellowlegs’ whereabouts ; and a responsive whistle, calling down the noisy, sociable birds to the wooden decoys even from a greater height than their bodies may at first be seen, or bringing them running from the muddy feeding grounds to their supposed friends, lures them close enough to the blind for a pot shot. Consternation seizes the survivors; they fly upward and jostle against each other; they dart now this way, now that, crying shrilly as they blunder upward in a zigzag course; but calming their fears as the whistle from behind the blind reassures and entreats, down wheel the confiding innocents again, only to be stretched beside their stiffening companions at a second discharge of the gun. So this alleged sport goes gaily on through the autumn, although no one on the Atlantic coast, at least, raves over the sedgy flavor of the stone snipe’s flesh, or often tries to give a better reason for bagging the birds than that they frighten off the ducks! In the west the flesh is more truly desirable.

Noisy, hilarious chatterers, their shrill notes, four times repeated, coming from an entire flock at once, after the manner of old squaws, these tattlers, that are always inviting kindred flocks to join theirs, excite other birds to restless habits like their own, and keep themselves well advertised in the marshes and about the bays and estuaries where they feed. Yet they are exceedingly vigilant in spite of their noise, and are the first to pass an alarm. It is only by screening oneself behind a blind, and whistling the birds within range of nothing more formidable than a field glass and a camera, that the altruistic bird hunter may hope to study the wary fellows. As a flock whirls about in wide, easy circles before alighting, they appear to be yellow legged white birds. Before actually touching the ground with their dangling feet, the wings are flapped, then raised above the back to a point where they meet—a posture suggesting a scorn of earth—then they are softly folded into place. As the bird walks, it carries itself with a stately dignity, yet the long bill turned inquisitively from side to side detracts not a little from the general impression of elegance. Wading up to its breast in shallow waters, or running nimbly over the sand flats and muddy beaches, the yellowleg keeps its bill almost constantly employed dragging worms, snails, and small shell fish from their holes, probing for others, and picking up tiny crustaceans swimming along the surface of the water or crawling over the beach.

It is a long excursion from Labrador to the Argentine Republic, yet birds hatched at the end of June at the north reach South America in October, leaving again in March, and so enjoy perpetual summer.