Note large bill with pale base.
  • Note: thick, long bill with pale base.
  • Note large bill with pale base.

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Greater Yellowlegs

Tringa melanoleuca
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
This large and diverse family of shorebirds is made up mostly of northern breeders that migrate long distances. Their highly migratory nature leads them astray fairly frequently, and rarities often show up outside their normal range. Many of these mostly coastal birds forage in relation to the tides, rather than the time of day. They use a variety of foraging techniques, but the most common techniques are picking food from the ground or water, or probing into wet sand or mud. Those that probe generally have sensitive bills that open at the tips. Most members of this group eat small invertebrates. Many make dramatic, aerial display-flights during courtship. Nesting practices vary, but both parents typically help raise the young. Clutch size is usually four, and both parents generally incubate. The young are precocial and leave the nest within a day of the hatching of the last chick. Most feed themselves, although the parents generally tend the young for a varying period of time. The female typically abandons the group first, leaving the male to care for the young until they are independent.
Common migrant. Winter uncommon west, rare east.

    General Description

    The Greater Yellowlegs is a mottled gray wading bird with long, bright yellow legs. It is similar in appearance to its smaller relative, the Lesser Yellowlegs. The bill of the Greater Yellowlegs is slender and longer than the diameter of its head, in contrast to the bill of the Lesser Yellowlegs, which is not significantly longer than its head. In breeding plumage, the bill is solid black, whereas in non-breeding plumage it may be lighter gray at the base. The bill may appear slightly upturned. The Greater Yellowlegs' cryptic plumage is mottled brownish-gray and white, with the breeding plumage brighter and more heavily barred. An important field mark of the bird in flight is its white tail, which is barred at the end. Relative to its size, the legs of the Greater Yellowlegs are shorter than those of the Lesser, with the result that the toes do not project as far behind the tail in flight.


    Greater Yellowlegs breed in muskeg bogs in the northern boreal forest. Their wintering and migration habitats are more general; they can be found in many fresh and saltwater wetland habitats, including open marshes, mudflats, estuaries, open beaches, lakeshores, and riverbanks. In comparison to Lesser Yellowlegs, Greaters are typically found in more open areas, on larger bodies of water, and on more extensive mudflats.


    Greater Yellowlegs are less social than many shorebirds, and small flocks form during migration. Outside of the breeding season, most foraging takes place in shallow water. They often feed actively, running after fish or other fast-moving aquatic prey. Greater Yellowlegs swing their heads back and forth with the tips of their bills in the water, stirring up prey, but are less likely to use this foraging technique than are Lesser Yellowlegs. The Greater Yellowlegs bobs the front half of its body up and down, a characteristic behavior of this genus. Greater Yellowlegs are wary, often the first species to sound an alarm when a perceived threat approaches. Greater Yellowlegs are known for their piercing alarm calls that alert all the birds in the area. Their flight call consists of a series of 3 or 4 notes.


    During the breeding season, insects and insect larvae are the primary sources of food. During winter and migration, small fish, crustaceans, snails, and other aquatic animals round out the diet.


    Due to its low densities and remote nesting areas, the breeding biology of the Greater Yellowlegs is not well studied, and much is unknown about it. They are presumed to be monogamous, and pairs form shortly after they arrive on the breeding grounds. The nest is on the ground, close to the water. It is well concealed in a shallow depression, under a low shrub or next to a moss hummock. The nest is sparsely lined with grass, leaves, lichen, and twigs. Both parents probably help incubate the 4 eggs for 23 days. The young leave the nest soon after hatching and find their own food. The parents appear to tend the young at least until they are capable of fluttering flight, at 25 days, and may stay until they are strong flyers, at 35-40 days. Pairs raise a single brood a season.

    Migration Status

    A long-distance migrant, Greater Yellowlegs begin moving south from the breeding grounds in late June. During migration, they are found in appropriate habitat from coast to coast. While some stay in Washington through winter, most continue on to the southern US and Central and South America. In spring, they leave South America by March and start heading back to the breeding grounds.

    Conservation Status

    Hunting led to population declines in the 19th Century, but protection in the form of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 has helped the population recover. Christmas Bird Count data suggest that Greater Yellowlegs are becoming more common in Washington in winter. The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates the population to number 100,000 birds in North America. Throughout their range, Greater Yellowlegs are common and widespread, but their low density, remote breeding grounds, and lack of major stopover or wintering areas make the population difficult to survey. Fortunately, these traits also protect the population from many threats, and their flexibility in migration and wintering habitat will help the population in the face of increased wetland habitat destruction. Protection of this habitat remains important to maintain numbers of this and other shorebird species.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Greater Yellowlegs are common migrants throughout Washington's lowland wetlands. Greatest densities are seen from mid-March through mid-May, and again from late June through October. Some birds remain in Washington through winter, along the coast or in the Puget Trough, and occasionally east of the Cascades along the Columbia River.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest CoastUUFFFRFFFUUU
    Puget TroughUUUCFRUCCFFU
    North Cascades UU RUU
    West Cascades UFU UFUR
    East Cascades RUR UUUR
    Okanogan UCCRFCU
    Canadian Rockies FURFFU
    Blue Mountains RR
    Columbia PlateauRUFCCRFFCFRR

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern