Despite its name, the short-billed dowitcher has a bill twice the size of its head. It’s a short bill only compared to its relative, the long-billed dowitcher. The two species were, until recently, considered one species.

Physical Description

Adults have a long bill and, in summer, brilliant orange and dark markings. Their bodies appear chunky. In the winter their plumage keeps its pattern but the colors become more dull overall, a brownish gray. Short-billed dowitchers have a small head, long legs and a bill that curves down slightly about a third of the way from the tip. 

Size

Slightly larger than a robin, short-billed dowitchers are about 9 to 12.5 inches long (23 to 32 centimeters) with wingspans of 18 to 22 inches (46 to 56 centimeters) in length.

Native Habitat

In the summer, they nest in northern marshes, bogs, wet meadows, and coastal areas where boreal forests transition to tundra. Despite nesting in wet areas, their nests are usually away from the water’s edge. In the winter, they are found in coastal environments, especially tidal mudflats and a range of manmade habitats like shrimp farms. Wintering dowitchers are more likely to be seen in saltwater environments than long-billed dowitchers, which tend to prefer freshwater environments.

Migratory birds, short-billed dowitchers travel between their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska and their wintering grounds along the coasts of southern North America, northern South America, and Caribbean islands. There are three recognized subspecies that are geographically separated in the breeding season (Alaska, western/central Canada, and eastern Canada), but may mix in the non-breeding season.

Lifespan

The oldest known wild short-billed dowitcher was banded as a chick and was nearly 14 when it was recaptured in Delaware.

Communication

Their trilling “tu-tu-tu” or “ti-ti-ti” calls are very different from the high-pitched “keek” of the long-billed dowitcher. In migration and wintering areas, while feeding in flocks, short-billed dowitchers tend to be silent, a main way to tell them apart from long-billed dowitchers, which call often and continuously in flocks. 

Food/Eating Habits

They rapidly poke under the water with their beaks to find food, sometimes submerging their whole heads in the water. They have sensitive nerves at the tip of their beak that help them feel around for and find food. They mainly eat small invertebrates, including crustaceans, marine worms, insects and mollusks. They will also eat some plant material, including seeds and tubers.  

Sleep Habits

During the nesting season, females may sleep when incubating. During migration and wintering, they may roost in small flocks at high tide near where they feed at low tide.

Social Structure

Except while nesting, short-billed dowitchers are not extremely territorial. While migrating, they often occur in large flocks, sometimes with birds of their own species and sometimes with other shorebirds. They are often spotted with whimbrels, red knots, black-bellied plovers, and ruddy turnstones. 

Reproduction and Development

While short-billed dowitchers spend their winters on warm coasts, they nest in the far north, typically far from the shorelines. Pairs are often monogamous across breeding seasons, but they arrive to the breeding grounds separately. Males court females by calling from tree branches and performing acrobatic song flights.  

Short-billed dowitchers build their nests on the ground; their nests are simple bowls in moss or grass lined with soft grasses and leaves. The mother lays three or four pebble-colored eggs and then both parents take turns incubating the eggs for the approximately three weeks until they hatch. As in many closely related species, the female leaves the young before the male does. The male undertakes most of the hatchling care by leading them to food and helping protect them, but the chicks are responsible for feeding themselves. Males remain with the chicks until they are able to fly.

Conservation Efforts

Population numbers are decreasing. Main threats include loss of stopover and wintering habitats due mainly to human development and sea level rise, and changes to nesting habitat due to climate change. 

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