Our Bird Neighbors – Willet

(Symphemia semipalmata)


Length—About 16 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Upper parts brownish gray, streaked on the head and neck with black; the back barred across with black, which sometimes give the prevailing tone; a large white space on wings, half the primaries and the greater part of secondaries being white; upper tail coverts white, indistinctly barred with dusky; central tail feathers ashy, indistinctly barred with dusky; the outer feathers almost white, and mottled with gray. Under parts white; the fore neck heavily streaked; the breast and sides washed with buff and heavily barred with dusky; wing lining sooty. Bill long and dark; legs bluish gray; the toes partly webbed (semipalmate). In winter: Upper parts a lighter brownish gray, nearly if not altogether unmarked; the tail coverts white; below white shaded with gray on throat, breast, and sides; axillars blackish. A great variety of intermediate stages.

Range—Eastern temperate North America, nesting throughout its United States range, but rarely north of Long Island or Illinois; resident in southern states, and wintering southward to West Indies and Brazil.

Season—Summer resident or spring and autumn visitor; May; August and September.

Pill-will-willet, pill-will-willet, loudly whistled from the tide or fresh water marshes, leaves no doubt in the sportsman’s mind as to what bird is sounding the alarm to better game and startling every throat and wing in the neighborhood to action. Wary, restless, noisy, no one may approach this large tattler, however well protected in the spring, at least (as every bird should be), under the wing of the law; neither will it come to a decoy easily, nor permit itself to be whistled down to the stools, unlike the majority of its too confiding kin. But however distrustful of man, it is not unsocial, since we often see it in companies of other beach birds that evidently depend upon its office as sentinel. Morning, noon, and night its voice is loudly in evidence, until one tires of hearing its persistent whistle. Within a stone’s throw of a summer cottage on the New Jersey coast,a decidedly wide-awake call came from the marsh every hour between sunset and sunrise.

But love, the magician, works wonders with this noisy, distrustful bird, and a radical if temporary change comes over it during the nesting season. ” They cease their cries,” says Dr. Coues, ” grow less uneasy, become gentle, if still suspicious, and may generally be seen stalking quietly about the nest. When willets are found in that humor—absent minded, as it were, absorbed in reflection upon their engrossing duties, and unlikely to observe anything not in front of their bill—it is pretty good evidence that they have a nest hard by. During incubation, the bird that is `off duty’ (both birds are said to take turns at this) almost always indulges in reveries, doubtless rose tinted . . . and the inquiring ornithologist could desire no better opportunity to observe every motion and attitude.”

A nest in the Jersey marsh already mentioned was nothing more than a depression in a dry spot of ground, containing four pale olive brown eggs spotted with a darker shade and rich purplish brown. This nest, among the thick sedges, was reached by a sort of tunnel among the grasses, entered some little distance away by the sitting bird. Neither parent had forgotten how to get scared or to make a noise the day that nest was visited; nor did other birds in the marsh fail to loudly protest their sympathy, not to say alarm, as they circled overhead in a state of painful excitement. Reassured that no harm had been done by a mere glance at the speckled treasures, the willets wheeled about lower and lower over the sedges, flashing the white wing mirrors in the sunlight before they alighted, and with wings held high above the back until they met, at last set foot to earth again, bowing their heads like reverent archangels as they struck this exquisite posture. Musical, liquid, tender notes, evidently a love song, float from the throat of the sentinel lover, walking up and down in absentminded happiness not many paces from the entrance to the grassy tunnel. None of the willets in that well populated marsh were ever caught in the act of swimming, though the partial webbing of their feet indicates that they must be able to swim well when necessary. A western representative of these birds, formerly con-founded with them, nests west of the Mississippi, and Mr. William Brewster discovered that it is a slightly larger bird, with a more slender, long bill, of paler coloration, and with less distinct bars and other marks.