Wilson’s Phalarope: The Rebel

Wilson's Phalarope: The Rebel

Wilson’s Phalaropes don’t care for your gender norms.

In the bird world, roles for the sexes are fairly well established: The males woo the females, and the females raise the young. Females want to make sure they choose a good mate, so males put a lot of effort into making a good impression—they’ll show off their bright, colorful plumage to its best advantage, and they'll find the best territories and defend them vigorously. Then they’ll sing and dance like maniacs to seal the deal.

The females, for their part, have a different set of priorities. With no one to impress, female birds on the whole don’t bother with fighting or dancing or fancy plumages. (In fact, bright colors may be dangerous to females, who are vulnerable to predators while minding the nest and the young.) So, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that when you see two birds of the same species together and one is more colorful than the other, the bright one is the male and the dull one is the female.

But rules are made to be broken, and a group of skinny sandpipers called phalaropes are just the rebels to do it. In each of the three phalarope species of the world—red (confusingly called “grey phalarope” in the U.K.), red-necked, and Wilson’s—typical gender roles are completely flipped: The females are bigger than males, and have brighter breeding plumage. What’s more, they are the pursuers, seeking out males and fighting over them with other females. And while the ladies are still the only ones who can lay eggs (when that changes, we’ll let you know!), males are wholly responsible for incubation and chick-raising, while the female goes off to find other males to mate with. In a single breeding season, she might carry on with up to four males—leaving each one with exactly four eggs to raise.

Sex-role reversal occurs in a handful of species around the world—cassowaries and seahorses, for example—but phalaropes are among the few North American birds to exhibit this gender-bending tendency. Scientists recently attributed the behavior to the gender ratios typical of these species: There are far more male phalaropes than females, which means the females, rather than taking whatever they can get, throw their energy into competing for the best specimens in that large male pool. And because males can't count on multiple mating opportunities, when they do get eggs laid, they protect those eggs—and their own genes’ future—with all they’ve got. Thus the helicopter parenting.

If you happen to be an American who doesn’t spend the majority of his or her life at sea, the phalarope species you’re most likely to encounter is the Wilson’s (named in honor of the early American ornithologist Alexander Wilson), which breeds throughout the Rocky Mountain west and the northern Great Plains, and can be found throughout the country in migration (although it's usually scarce east of the Mississippi). If you want to increase your odds of a sighting, spend some time hanging out near fresh-water marshes, and keep an eye out. You shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting them: They’ll be one the ones spinning around in circles. 

Yes, courting isn't the only practice in which Wilson’s Phalaropes exhibit a non-conformist streak—they're also weird eaters.  While most sandpipers run around jamming their beaks into the dirty mud looking for food, phalaropes make the food come to them. When out in open water, phalaropes use their feet to spin around and around in a tight circle.  Once they get going, the water column spins into a vortex that sucks tiny copepods and other food from the depths to within reach of the bird’s beak.  It’s peculiar behavior when seen in a single bird, but when a group of phalaropes is spinning together it’s downright dizzying, like some kind of intensely competitive avian dance contest.

To be honest, it all looks pretty silly. But then, you can raise your eyebrows all you want—Wilson’s Phalaropes don’t care what you think of them. They’ll proudly flout avian gender conventions, and they’ll feed like a bunch of hungry aquatic gyroscopes, because that’s just how they like to do things. You’ll just have to deal with it.