At a Glance

The most widespread of the curlews, nesting in the Arctic across North America and Eurasia, wintering on the coasts of six continents. Whimbrels tend to concentrate in flocks at a few favored spots in migration, so that the observer sees either many of them or else very small numbers. The name 'Whimbrel,' originating in England, apparently began as a loose interpretation of the bird's call.
Sandpiper-like Birds, Sandpipers
Low Concern
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, Flap/Glide, Formation, Running

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

Has a wide wintering range, from our Pacific and southeastern coasts to southern South America. Whimbrels from European and Asian races, with white on lower back and rump, sometimes stray to North America.


17" (43 cm). Larger than most shorebirds, with downcurved bill. Overall rather plain gray-brown, but has strong black head stripes. Very plain-looking in flight, with no contrasting colors in wings or tail. Eurasian Whimbrels with white or pale rumps sometimes seen in Alaska or on Atlantic Coast.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Brown, Tan
Wing Shape
Pointed, Tapered
Tail Shape
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped, Wedge-shaped

Songs and Calls

A series of 5-7 loud, clear, whistled notes: pip-pip-pip-pip-pip.
Call Pattern
Falling, Flat
Call Type
Scream, Trill, Whistle


Shores, mudflats, marshes, tundra. Found on a wide variety of habitats on migration. Most common on mudflats, but also found on rocky shores, sandy beaches, salt marshes, flooded agricultural fields, grassy fields near coast. In summer, breeds on Arctic tundra.



4, sometimes 3. Olive to buff, blotched with shades of brown. Incubation is by both sexes, roughly 24-28 days.


Downy young leave nest soon after hatching. Both parents tend young, but young feed themselves. Adults actively attack predators flying over nesting area, and will fly straight at human intruders, swerving aside at last moment. Age of young at first flight about 5-6 weeks.

Feeding Behavior

Forages by walking on open flats, picking up items from surface or probing just below surface; despite long bill, does not seem to probe deeply. When feeding on crabs, may break off legs and crush shell before swallowing body of crab.


Includes insects, crustaceans, berries. On breeding grounds may feed mostly on insects at first, but berries (such as crowberry and cranberry) become major part of diet by late summer. On coast, often eats many crabs, also amphipods and other crustaceans, marine worms, small mollusks.


Early in breeding season, male performs flight display over nesting territory: flies in large circles, alternately fluttering higher and gliding down, while giving whistling and bubbling song. On ground, members of pair may call together. Nest site is on ground, usually in dry raised area near low-lying wet tundra. Nest (probably built mostly by female) is shallow depression, lined with bits of lichen, moss, grass.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

Numbers were seriously depleted by market hunters in late 19th century, have recovered somewhat since.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Whimbrel. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Whimbrel

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.

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