North American Birds – Phalaropes

(Family Phalaropodidcae)

Wilson’s Phalarope

(Phalaropus tricolor)


Length-8.25 to 9 inches. Smaller than a robin; female the larger.

Female: In summer—” Top of the head and middle of the back pearl gray, nape white; a black streak passes through the eye to the side of the neck, and, changing to rufous chest-nut, continues down the sides of the back and on the scapulars; neck and upper breast washed with pale, brownish rufous; rest of the under parts and upper tail coverts, white.

Male: In summer—Upper parts fuscous brown, bordered with grayish brown; upper tail coverts, nape, and a line over the eye white or whitish; sides of the neck and breast washed with rufous; rest of the under parts white.

Adults: In winter—Upper parts gray, margined with white; upper tail coverts white; wings fuscous, their coverts margined with buffy; under parts white.”—(Chapman.)

Range—Temperate North America, most abundant in the interior; nesting from northern Illinois and Utah northward, and wintering southward to Brazil and Patagonia.

Season—Chiefly a migrant in the United States; more rarely a summer resident.

Without the help of the woman’s college, club, or bicycle, the female phalarope has emancipated herself from most of the bondages of her sex, showing a fine scorn for its conventional proprieties. It is she who, wearing the handsome feathers and boasting a larger size than the male—although neither bird is so large as a robin,—undertakes to woo her coy sweetheart by bold advances. Possibly a brazen rival adds to his miseries. The at first reluctant lover may run away, but, quickly overtaken, he soon falls a victim to the wiles of the most persistent wooer, to continue the most hen-pecked of mates ever after.

On him fall all the domestic drudgeries, except the laying of the eggs—the one feminine accomplishment of his almost unsexed boss. He chooses the site for their nursery in a tuft of grass in a wet meadow or soft earth, usually near water; and, having scratched a slight depression in the soil and lined it with grass, she actually condescends to lay three or four cream colored eggs, heavily blotched with chocolate brown, about the first of June. Sometimes a second and smaller set of eggs is found late in the season. Many male birds, as we all know, relieve their brooding mates, but is there another instance where the male does all the incubating, while the female enjoys life at ease ? What must a totally enslaved mother duck think of such emancipation ? And what compassion must not a dandified, care-free drake feel for the male phalarope confined on the eggs day after day, and scarcely permitted twenty minutes for refreshments ?

To secure their food, phalaropes run along the marshes and beaches exactly like sandpipers, picking up snails and other small animal forms, and nodding their heads as they go; or wading knee deep into the ponds, thrust them below the shallow water. “Swimming Sandpipers ” they certainly are, though they swim rarely, never for long at a time, or in deep water. Every movement, whether afloat or ashore, is full of daintiness and grace. In flight they sometimes cover short distances in a zigzag, as if uncertain of their direction; but once launched on a long migration, they fly with directness and power.

The Northern Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus), a very small, slaty gray, chestnut red, buff and white bird, the smallest of all the swimmers, passes along the coasts of the United States, from its nesting grounds in the Arctic regions, to winter in the tropics. Great flocks, bedded or swimming in the ocean, are often met by coastwise steamers in spring and from August to November.