At a Glance
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. Red-necked Phalaropes nest around arctic tundra pools and winter at sea. During migration they pause on shallow ponds in the west, where they spin in circles, picking at the water's surface. However, most apparently migrate offshore, especially in the east. Despite their small size and delicate shape, they seem perfectly at home on the open ocean.
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, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Open Ocean, 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, Erratic, Rapid Wingbeats, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Common in migration off both coasts. A common migrant through the interior of the west (locally abundant in fall), but quite rare inland in the east (where most records are in fall). Western birds winter at sea, mainly south of Equator off western South America; wintering areas of east coast migrants not well known.
7" (18 cm). Spring female mostly gray with red neck, white throat, rich buff stripes on back. Male duller. Fall adults gray above, white below, with stripes on back and sharp black patch on face. Fall juveniles have similar pattern but show much more buff at first.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Gray, Red, White
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped, Wedge-shaped
Songs and Calls
A sharp twit or whit.
Ocean, bays, lakes, ponds; tundra in summer. At sea, often concentrates over upwellings or tide rips, sometimes around edges of kelp beds. Inland, stops on ponds or lakes with abundant small creatures to eat; often favors sewage ponds, where insects are numerous. Breeds in tundra regions, mainly on marshy edges of ponds and lakes.
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4, sometimes 3. Olive to buff, blotched with dark brown. Rarely 2 or 3 females will lay eggs in one nest. Incubation is by male only, 17-21 days. Young: Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching, go to shore of pond. Male tends young and broods them while they are small, but young feed themselves. Male departs after about 2 weeks, young are able to fly at about 3 weeks.
Downy young leave nest within a day after hatching, go to shore of pond. Male tends young and broods them while they are small, but young feed themselves. Male departs after about 2 weeks, young are able to fly at about 3 weeks.
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.
Insects, crustaceans, mollusks. Diet varies with season and habitat. On breeding grounds and on fresh waters in migration, eats mostly insects, including adults and larvae of flies, beetles, caddisflies. During stopovers on alkaline lakes, may eat many brine shrimp. Winter diet on ocean poorly known, probably includes small crustaceans and mollusks.
Female seeking mate makes short flights, with whirring of wings and calling. In courtship, female swims around male, tries to make him follow her; male usually reluctant, shows interest only gradually. In some cases, after leaving male to care for eggs and young, female finds another mate and lays another clutch of eggs. Nest site is on ground, usually in low vegetation near water. Nest is a shallow scrape lined with grass, leaves. Both sexes make scrapes, female chooses one, probably both sexes then help build nest.
Population difficult to monitor. Some evidence of recent declines in some areas, such as off the coast of New England. Most alarming is the disappearance of former concentrations in the western Bay of Fundy. Fall gatherings there had been estimated as high as 3 million in the 1970s, but numbers began to drop sharply in the 1980s and the concentrations have largely disappeared.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Red-necked Phalarope. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Red-necked Phalarope
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.