Photo: Garth McElroy/Vireo

Red Phalarope

Phalaropus fulicarius

Phalaropes reverse the usual sex roles in birds: Females are larger and more colorful than males; females take the lead in courtship, and males are left to incubate the eggs and care for the young. The Red Phalarope nests in the high Arctic, and winters in flocks on southern oceans. It is rarely seen inland in most parts of North America.
Conservation status Numbers are difficult to measure, but populations are thought to have declined recently. Breeding areas in high Arctic are vulnerable to effects of climate change, while changes in ocean conditions could cause problems for the birds wintering at sea.
Family Sandpipers
Habitat Ocean; tundra in summer. For most of year found only out at sea, often very far from land. Favors areas with upwellings or tide rips, or where warm and cold currents converge; may regularly associate with whales. In summer on low-lying wet tundra near coast in high arctic.
Phalaropes reverse the usual sex roles in birds: Females are larger and more colorful than males; females take the lead in courtship, and males are left to incubate the eggs and care for the young. The Red Phalarope nests in the high Arctic, and winters in flocks on southern oceans. It is rarely seen inland in most parts of North America.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male, breeding
  • adult female, breeding
  • juvenile
  • immature (1st winter)
  • adult, nonbreeding
  • adult molting to breeding plumage
  • adult female, breeding
Feeding Behavior

Unlike any other sandpipers, phalaropes forage mostly while swimming, by picking items from water's surface or just below it. Often they spin in circles on shallow water, probably to stir things up and bring food closer to surface. In general, they feed very rapidly on very small prey. At sea, may land on mats of floating seaweed, and may pick parasites from backs of whales. On breeding grounds, also forages while walking or wading, and flutters up to catch insects in the air.


Eggs

4, sometimes 2-3. Olive to buff, blotched with black or dark brown. Sometimes 2 females lay eggs in one nest. Incubation is by male only, 18-20 days. Young: Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching; male leads them to edge of nearby pond. Young are tended by male (rarely joined by female) but mostly feed themselves. Male may remain with young until they can fly, or may abandon them after just a few days; abandoned young can care for themselves. Age at first flight about 16-18 days.


Young

Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching; male leads them to edge of nearby pond. Young are tended by male (rarely joined by female) but mostly feed themselves. Male may remain with young until they can fly, or may abandon them after just a few days; abandoned young can care for themselves. Age at first flight about 16-18 days.

Diet

Includes insects, mollusks, crustaceans. On tundra, eats many insects, especially aquatic ones; also small mollusks, crustaceans, worms, bits of plant material, rarely small fish. Diet in winter poorly known.


Nesting

In courtship, female flies in wide circle, calling. Female may chase male in the air, or pursues male on water, head hunched down between her shoulders. After leaving male to care for eggs, female will sometimes find a second mate and lay a second clutch of eggs. Nest site is on ground among low vegetation, usually near water. Nest is a shallow scrape lined with grass, lichens, moss. Both sexes make scrapes, female selects one, male adds nest lining.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Migrates mostly offshore; rarely seen inland south of breeding grounds. A few winter off North American coast, but most apparently are well south of Equator in winter. Migrates later in fall than Red-necked Phalarope.

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Migration

Migrates mostly offshore; rarely seen inland south of breeding grounds. A few winter off North American coast, but most apparently are well south of Equator in winter. Migrates later in fall than Red-necked Phalarope.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Sharp metallic kreeep.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

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