Photo: Glenn Bartley/Vireo

Willet

Tringa semipalmata

A Willet standing on the beach is simply a large plain shorebird; but its identity is obvious as soon as it spreads its wings, and it even calls its name in flight. Two distinct populations inhabit North America, one nesting in prairie marshes, the other in salt marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. In favorable areas in the middle Atlantic states, Willets are abundant, nesting in colonies, their ringing calls echoing across the tidelands on spring mornings.
Conservation status Eastern population was much reduced by hunting in late 19th century, has made good recovery. Loss of habitat has reduced numbers in some areas, but birds tolerate some disturbance of habitat.
Family Sandpipers
Habitat Marshes, wet meadows, mudflats, beaches. Eastern race nests in areas of extensive salt marsh along coast; western race nests inland, around fresh marshes in open country, especially native grassland. In migration and winter, both forms occur on mudflats, tidal estuaries, sandy beaches.
A Willet standing on the beach is simply a large plain shorebird; but its identity is obvious as soon as it spreads its wings, and it even calls its name in flight. Two distinct populations inhabit North America, one nesting in prairie marshes, the other in salt marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. In favorable areas in the middle Atlantic states, Willets are abundant, nesting in colonies, their ringing calls echoing across the tidelands on spring mornings.
Photo Gallery
  • Western adults,nonbreeding
  • juvenile
  • adult Eastern, breeding
  • adult Western, breeding
  • adult Eastern, nonbreeding
  • adult Western, breeding
Feeding Behavior

Forages by walking on shore, in marsh, or in shallow water, probing with its bill in mud or water, or picking items from the surface.


Eggs

4, rarely 5. Grayish to olive-buff, blotched with brown. Incubation is by both parents, with male incubating at night and sometimes during mid-day, female at other times. Incubation period 22-29 days. Young: Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching, are led by parents to marshy pond areas. Young find all their own food. Female parent departs after 2-3 weeks, leaving male to care for young. Age of young at first flight not well known, probably about 4 weeks.


Young

Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching, are led by parents to marshy pond areas. Young find all their own food. Female parent departs after 2-3 weeks, leaving male to care for young. Age of young at first flight not well known, probably about 4 weeks.

Diet

Includes insects, crustaceans, marine worms. Diet varies with location. On inland waters, may feed largely on aquatic insects. On coast, eats many crabs, including fiddler crabs. Also feeds on other crustaceans, small mollusks, sometimes small fish; eats some plant material, including grass, fresh shoots, and seeds.


Nesting

Often nests in colonies, especially along Atlantic Coast. In breeding season, unpaired males perform flight displays, flying over nesting area with wings fluttering through shallow arc, while giving pill-will-willet calls. Nest site is on ground, usually among dense short grass, sometimes on open ground. Usually well hidden, sometimes conspicuous. Nest is shallow depression with grass bent down to form foundation, lined with finer grasses.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Willets breeding on the northern Great Plains and the interior of the northwest migrate to coastal regions for the winter. Some of these western birds migrate far to the east, occurring all along the Atlantic Coast in fall and winter.

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Migration

Willets breeding on the northern Great Plains and the interior of the northwest migrate to coastal regions for the winter. Some of these western birds migrate far to the east, occurring all along the Atlantic Coast in fall and winter.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A loud ringing pill-will-willet and a quieter kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Sandpipers Sandpiper-like Birds

Willet

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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