Dunlins are a medium-sized sandpiper with a slightly down-curved black bill. In North America, dunlins spend the summer breeding season in the arctic and subarctic regions, and winter along both coasts of the United States and Mexico.

Physical Description

Dunlins have long black legs and feet, and a black beak that droops slightly at the end. During the summer breeding season, they have a large black belly spot—which distinguishes them from all other shorebirds—and orange feathers on their back. During the winter and nonbreeding season, they are all white with a gray back and head. 


With a stocky body about the size of a starling’s but with longer legs, dunlins are 6 to 9 inches long (16 to 22 centimeters) with a wingspan of 13 to 16 inches (33 to 40 centimeters).

Native Habitat

During the breeding season, they live in coastal tundra areas. In the winter, they live along mudflats, estuaries, marshes and coastlines.


The oldest known wild dunlin from Europe was 24 years old.


Dunlins make different vocalizations during the breeding season to attract mates, defend territories, and scare predators. When they are getting ready to migrate, they often give a treep call. 

Food/Eating Habits

Dunlins feed in wet marshes and mudflats and eat mainly invertebrates, including insects, snails, worms and crustaceans. They use their wide, slightly downturned beak to hunt for food in the mud.

Sleep Habits

Dunlin often sleep with their bill tucked under their wing.

Social Structure

Dunlins can migrate in large flocks, often swirling in synchronized flight motions. They are generally not social during the breeding season.

Reproduction and Development

Dunlin nests are shallow bowls scraped into the sand or mud in the ground by the male. Nests are often positioned at the top of tussocks, or patches of tall grass. The female selects the nest scrape to use, and lays four olive to brown-colored speckled eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs. The babies leaves the nest soon after hatching, and their father takes care of them until they are ready to be on their own.

Conservation Efforts

Many shorebird populations are declining in numbers. Threats include habitat loss, especially along coasts, human disturbance and climate change. 

Help this Species

  • Reduce, reuse and recycle — in that order! Cut back on single-use goods, and find creative ways to reuse products at the end of their life cycle. Choose recycling over trash when possible.
  • Organize or attend a stream, river, lake or other waterway cleanup in your area to preserve aquatic habitats for local species.
  • Avoid single-use plastics, such as plastic bottles, bags and utensils. Choosing reusable options instead can help reduce plastic pollution.
  • Protect local waterways by using fewer pesticides when caring for your garden or lawn. Using fertilizers sparingly, keeping storm drains free of litter and picking up after your pet can also improve watershed health.

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