At a Glance
The name, first applied long ago, simply means 'little dun-colored (gray-brown) bird,' a good description of the Dunlin in winter plumage. Spending the winter farther north than most of its relatives, this species is a familiar sight along the outer beaches during the cold months, as far north as New England and even southern Alaska. It is often in large flocks; in flight, these flocks may twist and bank in unison, in impressive aerial maneuvers. In breeding plumage, the Dunlin is so much more brightly colored as to seem like a different bird.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Sandpiper-like Birds, Sandpipers
Coasts and Shorelines, Freshwater Wetlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Saltwater Wetlands, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Rapid Wingbeats, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
A short-distance migrant, wintering commonly on North American coast, almost never reaching the Equator. Generally a much later fall migrant than most shorebirds.
8 1/2" (22 cm). Note bill shape: heavy at base, drooped at tip. Winter plumage (worn at least half the year) dull brownish gray on head, chest, back. Western Sandpiper is paler, especially on chest, and smaller. Purple and Rock Sandpipers are darker, chunkier, with paler legs. Breeding plumage distinct, with reddish back and black belly patch, but in western Alaska see Rock Sandpiper.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Brown, Gray, Red, White
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped, Wedge-shaped
Songs and Calls
A soft cheerp or chit-lit.
Tidal flats, beaches, muddy pools; wet tundra in summer. During migration and winter, widespread in coastal habitats; mainly mudflats, but also sand beaches, rocky shores. Inland, occurs on lake shores, sewage ponds, flooded fields. Breeds on wet tundra, especially areas with hummocks, tussocks, and low ridges interspersed with ponds and marshy spots.
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4, sometimes 2-3, perhaps very rarely more than 4. Olive or blue-green to buff, with brown blotches concentrated at larger end. Incubation is by both sexes (mostly female during night, male during day), 20-24 days.
Downy young leave nest soon after hatching. Both parents tend young at first, but female often departs after a few days. Young feed themselves, are able to fly at age of 19-21 days.
Forages by picking at items on surface or by probing in mud, sometimes with very rapid "stitching" motion, probing several times per second. May feed by day or night.
Mostly insects on tundra, other small invertebrates on coast. Diet varies with season and location. On breeding grounds feeds heavily on insects, including midges, crane flies, beetles, and others. On coast eats wide variety of small creatures found in intertidal zone, including marine worms, snails and other mollusks, amphipods and other crustaceans, sometimes small fish. Sometimes eats seeds and leaves.
In display flight, male circles slowly over breeding territory, fluttering and gliding, while singing. On ground, reacts to intruding males by advancing, pausing to raise one wing high over back. Courtship may involve ritualized nest-making movements. Nest site is on ground, usually well hidden in or under grass clump or in hummock. Nest is a shallow scrape, lined with leaves and grass. Both sexes make scrapes, but female chooses one and completes nest.
Numbers wintering in some coastal areas have declined noticeably since the 1970s; the reasons for this are unknown.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Dunlin. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Dunlin
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.