At a Glance
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.
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, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Freshwater Wetlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Saltwater Wetlands
California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Rapid Wingbeats, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
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.
15" (38 cm). When standing, known by bulky body; long, straight, heavy bill; thick gray legs. Mottled and barred in breeding plumage, plain grayish in winter plumage. Western birds are slightly larger and paler. In flight, wing pattern diagnostic.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Gray, White
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped, Wedge-shaped
Songs and Calls
A loud ringing pill-will-willet and a quieter kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk.
Chirp/Chip, Raucous, Whistle
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Willet. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Willet
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.