Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Black-necked Stilt - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
BLACK-NECKED STILT HIMANTOPUS MEXICANUS (Muller)
Although I first met the black-necked stilt in the Florida Keys in 1903, it was not until I visited the irrigated regions of the San Joaquin Valley in California in 1914, that I saw this curious bird living in abundance and flourishing in most congenial surroundings. It was a pleasant change from the cool, damp air of the coast region to the clear, dry warmth of this highly cultivated valley. The naturally arid plains between the distant mountain ranges had been transformed by irrigation into fertile fields of alfalfa and wheat, vast areas had been flooded with water from the melting snows of the Sierras, forming grazing lands for herds of cattle and endless marshes, wet meadows, ponds and creeks, for various species of water birds. As W. Leon Dawson (1923) puts it:
The magic touch of water following its expected channels quickens an otherwise barren plain into a paradise of avian activities. Ducks of six or seven species frequent the deeper channels; coots and gallinules and pied-billed grebes crowd the sedgy margins of the ponds; herons, bitterns, ibises, and egrets, seven species of Herodiones, all told, occupy the reedy depths of the larger ponds or deploy over the grassy levels. Rails creak and titter, red wings clink, yellow-headed blackbirds gurgle, wrangle, and screech; while the marsh wrens, familiar spirits of the maze, sputter and chuckle over their quaint basketry. The tricolored blackbirds, also in great silent companies recruited from a hundred acres, charge into their nesting covert with a din of uncanny preoccupation. Over the open ponds black teras hover, and Forster terns flit with languid ease. Tile killdeer is not forgotten, nor the burrowing owl, whose home Is In the higher knolls; but over all and above all and through all comes the clamor of the black-necked stilt and the American avocet.
Of all these birds, the stilts were the most conspicuous in the wet meadows about Los Banos, where they were always noisy and aggressive. I have never seen them so abundant elsewhere, though I have seen them in similar situations in Florida and Texas, on extensive wet meadows where shallow water fills the hollows between myriads of little muddy islets and tufts of grass. Here they can wade about and feed in the water or build their nests on the hummocks above high-water mark, and here their young can hide successfully among the grassy tufts.
Nesting: My first glimpse of a black-necked stilt was a complete surprise, and my first nest was in an unexpected situation. On May 8, 1903, we landed on Lake Key, in the Florida Keys, a low fiat, open island with sandy shores and a lake in the middle of it. We walked across the beach, through a narrow strip of low red mangrove bushes and came to a little muddy pond, very shallow and dotted with little mangrove seedlings. Here we were delighted to see about half a dozen black-necked stilts, long slender birds, very striking in appearance and actions, the jet black wings contrasting finely with the pure white under parts and the long pink legs trailing behind. They seemed so much concerned, so unwilling to leave, and kept up such an incessant racket, that we felt sure that they were nesting there. A short search soon revealed two of their nests, both very conspicuously placed. The first nest, containing four quite heavily incubated eggs, was very prettily located under a little red mangrove root, just as it entered the ground; a hollow had been scraped in the sand and profusely lined with small bits of shell and pieces of dry sticks. The second nest was in plain sight on the open beach of finely broken shell in a small colony of least terns' nests, the three dark-colored eggs showing up very conspicuously on the white sand. The nest cavity measured six inches outside and four inches inside and was lined with pieces of shell, sticks, and fish bones, an odd and uncomfortable bed for the young. Besides the least terns, Wilson plovers were nesting close by, rather an unusual association for the marsh-loving stilts.
Gilbert R. Rossignol writes to me of a colony of some 23 nests that he found in a somewhat similar location on an island in Lake Kissimmee, Florida, on April 14, 1908. "The nests were all built high upon the gravelly beach and were lined with bits of freshwater snails." This colony was wiped out later by a rise of water in the lake.
Herbert W. Brandt has sent me some notes on this species as he found it breeding in Kleberg County, Texas, on May 28, 1919. He found seven nests in a colony of about ten pairs on "a watery, marshy meadow covering about a square mile, the water being 6 to 12 inches deep.'~ 1-le describes one of the nests as "composed of sticks made up into a floating platform, about four inches high and well made The lining was small sticks and the top basin shallow and nicely made. The water, exceedingly high frem recent rains, was up to the eggs, so that the nest ~vas wet." I saw a similar colony near Brownsville, Tex.
Near Los Banos, California, stilts were nesting all over the flooded meadows, on little hummocks, on the muddy islands, and along the margins of ponds. On the drier shores and banks the nests were very simple structures, hollows in the ground, lined with small twigs, weed stems, and grasses; but in the wet places, where they were liable to be flooded, they were quite elaborately elevated to considerable heights. Mr. Dawson (1923) writes:
It is when the water rises that the birds rise to the occasion, and get busy with nest building. Sedges, sticks, water plants with clinging soil, anything movable, is seized and forced under the threatened eggs. Indeed, so apprehensive is the bird of the growing necessity, that as often as she leaves the nest she will seize loose material and fling it over her shoulder for future use. The eggs themselves, protectively colored in bister and black, are mauled about and soiled in the mud; but the day is saved. I have seen a stilt, painfully conscious no doubt, squatted on a truncated cone of vegetation S Inches In height and as broad across the top, a veritable Noah's ark of safety.
John G. Tyler (1913) says:
Nesting colonies of these waders in the Fresno district are never very large, consisting of from 6 to 20 pairs, as a rule, the most extensive one of which I have any knowledge containing an average of about 30 pairs each season. Possibly the numerous small ponds will not support a great many birds, and as suitable pastures abound in certain sections it is not a diflicult matter for all the birds to be accoinmodateti without any crowding. As these nesting colonies of stilts are invariably in pastures with cattle tramping everywhere over the fields, it seems almost a miracle that any of the eggs escape being destroyed; and yet I have not one Iota of positive proof of such a disaster ever overtaking a stilt's nest, while In many instances I have known the eggs to hatch safely aLmost under the feet of stock. It is known that few animals will purposely step on any living object of a size large enough to be noticed, and the writer is convinced that a stilt simply remains oa her nest and by her vociferousness and possibly even with a few vigorous thrusts of her long bill causes a grazing cow to direct her course away from the nest. A lack of judgment causes many nests to be abandoned each year, and a colony of stilts that are not able to distinguish between a permanent pond and one that has been caused by irrigation is liable to find that by the time sets of eggs are complete the water has disappeared and a new nesting site must be chosen. Fortunately the larger colonies always seem to be located near the permanent ponds, but there are numerous scattering pairs that are deceived each summer.
I have often been surprised at the great diversity of nesting sites, even in the same colony, it being not an unusual occurrence to find nests entirely surrounded by water: little Islands of mud and sticks often built up out of water several inches deep. Not less common are the platforms of dried grass placed just at the water's edge, or the slight excavations that, kilideerlike, are placed on the bare ground a hundred yards or more from the nearest water. In one colony the majority of the nests were built on a levee that extended through the pond and were so near the waters edge that, although most of the nests were quite elaborate platforms of dry grass and twigs, the lower parts of the eggs were wet. Undoubtedly a high wind would have caused the wavelets to break over the levee. At this same place there were several nests far out on the open dry ground without even a spear of grass for concealment or protection, and with hardly a vestige of nesting material under the eggs. At one pond where two pairs had taken up summer quarters there was one nest on the bare black ground where the white breast of the sitting female was the most conspicuous object imaginable and could be seen at a glance from a distance of three or four hundred feet. In direct contrast was the other nest; for it was artfully hidden among rather rank salt grass some distance from the pond, and when the sitting bird flattened herself upon It, as Is the custom of this species when endeavoring to escape observation, she might have readily been overlooked from any near-by point.
The actions of different pairs of stilts when their nesting colonies are Invaded are also variable. Sometimes a flock of noisy screeching birds will press close about the Intruder, some hanging in the air on rapidly beating wings, others bouncing along the ground by leaps and hounds, raising and lowering their wings continually; while others go through every conceivable motion both on the ground and in the air. It seems that the larger the colony the more demonstrative the birds are; for in several instances where only one or two pairs were breeding the female would sneak from the nest in a guilty manner and quietly join her mate on the opposite side of the pond, where they would remain almost motionless or feed nervously along the margin of the pond.
Eggs: Four eggs are usually laid by the black-necked stilt, sometimes five, rarely seven, and occasionally only three. The shape is ovate, often somewhat pointed, and there is little, if any, gloss. rrhe ground color is dull "honey yellow," with an olivaceous tinge, or "cream buff." The eggs are irregularly spotted or covered with small blotches of brownish black or black. Sometimes there are a few blackish scrawls and usually a few underlying small spots of drab. They are often stained with mud. The measurements of 75 eggs, in the United States National Museum, average 44 by 30.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 48 by 30, 47 by 32, 40.5 by 80, and 46 by 28 millimeters.
Young: Incubation is shared by both sexes, but we have no accurate information as to its duration. Mr. Dawson (1923) says:
The infant can make shift to shuffle away from the nest and into cover within the hour, if need be, but he can not negotiate his stilts until several hours have elapsed after batching; and lie feels decidedly pale and tottery, uke a young colt, until the day after.
Dr. Frank M. Chapman (1908) writes:
On May 23, their eggs were hatching, and in June the snipelike young were widely distributed over the marsh. They invariably attempted to escape observation by squatting with neck outstretched, but the parents, whether one approached their eggs or young, expressed their solicitude by a surprising extravagance of motion, all apparently designed to draw attention to themselves. I was at times surrounded by hopping, fluttering stilts, all calling loudly, waving their wings, hounding into the air to bang there with dangling legs and beating pinions, and executing other feats which would have done credit to acrobatic marionettes.
Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1925) says:
The young grow rapidly, and the increase in the length of their legs is amazing. Until the bones are well formed the young, when not feeding, prefer to rest with the full length of the tarsus extended on the ground, but even then appear as tell as other shore birds of similar body size. Stilts show considerable attachment for their young, and, unless dispersed by some untoward accident, frequently remain in family groups long after the young are able to care for themselves. As the latter become strong on the wing the family parties range over the country in search of suitable feeding grounds. As the nights grow cold in Ihe North the birds band together in larger flocks and finally on some moonlit iiight ia September, young and old may be heard calling as they pass overhead on their southward migration.
Plumages: Robert Ridgway (1919) describes the downy young stilt as follows:
Upper parts light buffy grayish mottled with dusky, the back and rump with several large blotches of black; head, neck, and under parts huffy whitish or brownish white, the crown, occiput, and hiadneck grayish, the crown with a meslal streak of black, the occiput with several irregular spots of the same.
The juvenal plumage appears first on the scapulars, back and breast; and the tail is the last to appear. The young bird is fully feathered, except the tail, by the time it is two-thirds grown. In fresh juvenal plumage the color pattern is much like that of the adult female; the crown, hind neck, back and wings are brownish black, all the feathers being edged or tipped with "cinnamon"; the edgings are narrowest on the head, upper back and wing coverts, and broadest on the scapulars and tertials; the face, sides of the head and all under parts are white; the central tail feathers are dusky and the others are white, washed with dusky near the tip, and all tipped with pinkish buff. This plumage is worn all through the fall and winter, with no change except by wear and fading; before winter the edgings have largely disappeared.
A partial prenuptial molt of the body plumage occurs in early spring, when young birds become indistinguishable from adults, except for some retained juvenal wing coverts. Adults probably have a partial prenuptial molt in early spring and a complete postnuptial molt in late summer, but there are no well marked seasonal differences in plumage.
Food: Doctor Wetmore (1925) writes:
Stilts feed by picking up insects on muddy shores or in shallow water, and though not averse to frequenting alkaline areas, on the whole prefer fresher water than do avocets. For detailed analysis, 80 stomachs of the black-aeckeo stilt were available, distributed from March to August, and collected in California, Utah, Florida, and Porto Rico. Vegetable food in these amounted to only 1.1 per cent, whereas the animal matter formed 98.9 per cent. The birds are adept in seizing rapidly moving prey and in general are very methodical In their manner of obtaining food. Gravel Is picked up to some extent to aid digestion, and part of the seeds taken may have been swallowed for the same purpose.
The animal food consisted mainly of insects, aquatic bugs and beetles making up the largest items; dragonfly nymphs, caddisflies, mayfly nymphs, flies, billbugs, mosquito larvae, and grasshoppers were included. Crawfishes, snails, and a few tiny fishes were eaten. The vegetable food consisted mainly of a few seeds of aquatic and marsh plants.
Behavior: The flight of the stilt is steady and direct, but not particularly swift; the bill is held straight out in front and the legs are extended backwards, giving the bird a long, slim appearance. Over their eggs or young, stilts sometimes hover on steadily heating wings with dangling legs. In their excitement they sometimes climb up into the air and make startling dives.
But stilts are essentially waders; for wading they are highly specialized, and here they show to best advantage. At times they seem a bit wabbly on their absurdly long and slender legs, notably when trembling with excitement over the invasion of their breeding grounds. But really they are expert in the use of these well-adapted limbs, and one can not help admiring the skillful and graceful way in which they wade about in water breast deep, as well as on dry land, in search of their insect prey. The legs are much bent at each step, the foot is carefully raised and gently but firmly planted again at each long stride. The legs are so long' that when the bird is feeding on land it is necessary to bend the legs backward to enable the bill to reach the ground.
Stilts can swim and even dive if necessary, but they are very awkward at both, as might be expected with such long legs and the absence of webbed feet; they never indulge in either action except in cases of dire necessity. They are usually gentle and unsuspicious birds, much more easily approached than most large waders. On their breeding grounds they are especially fearless and demonstrative. Some of their amusing antics are well described by Mr. Dawson (1923) as follows:
While all are shouting lustily, the birds whose nests are more Immediately threatened are doing decoy stunts of several fascinating sorts. The favorite line of effort is the broken-leg act, in which the bird collapses suddenly, as though one of Its little pipestem legs had snapped in two. The act is performed with such sincerity, even when the bird Is standIng In only an inch or so of water, that it never ceases to be amusing. Moreover, the trick Is repeated diligently every few feet, so that It begins to look as though the bird had taken some fakir vow to prostrate Itself every third or fourth step. The avocet, now that one thinks of It, does the same thing; but it does It awkwardly or, as It were, cautiously, and so unconvincingly. It has manifestly copied from Its more agile neighbor. The second lIne of effort, most faithfully pursued, Is wing fluttering. In this, again, the stilt Is rather the mistress. It has perfected a trick Of putting up one wing at a tIme and letting the wind towsle it nbout, as though It were really broken. Of course It also flutters both wings, and goes through other nondescript flopping and fluttering performances, such as are common to the family of shore birds.
Voice: My first impression of the note as heard on the breeding grounds was recorded as a loud, guttural wituck, whuck, whuck; at other times it has seemed harsh and shrill. Audubon (1840) referred to their ordinary notes as "a whistling cry, different from the cleek, cleek, eleek, which they emit when they have nests or young." C. J. Maynard (1896), speaking of the breeding season, says: '~The tiote at this time was quite different from that given earlier in the season, as they now uttered short syllables sounding like put, put, put, repeated rapidly, that of fhe males being harsh, while the females gave it shriller and more continuous."
Fall: Stuart T. Danforth (1925), who made some studies of a breeding colony of stilts in Porto Rico, thus describes their departure in the Fall:
By the latter part of June the adu1t~ had begun to flock again, and by the middle of September all the stllt3 at the lagoon (155 by actual count) had formed one compact flock. This count was made on September 17.. By September 20 only about 50 were left; on September 23 there were 20; on September 27 and September 30, 16; on October 7, 5. After that none were seen.
DISTRIBUTION Range: The United States, and Central and South America.
Breeding range: North to Oregon (Klamath Lake, Burns and Maiheur Lake); Utah (Brigham and Salt Lake City); Colorado (San Luis Lake and Fort Garland); Louisiana (Black Bayou, Calcasieu, Abbeville, and .Vermilion Bay); and Florida (Titusville). East to Florida (Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Kissimmee, Eden, and Lake Hicpoche); the Bahama Islands (Andros, Inagua and Green Cay); Cuba (Manzanillo); Porto Rico (Guanica lagoon); Venezuela (lagoon of Savonet and Curacao); Peru (Upper Ucayali River); and probably Ecuador (Guayaquil). South to probably Ecuador (Guayaquil); and probably the Galapagos Islands (Chatham and Albemarle Islands). West probably, to the Galapagos Islands (Albemarle Island); probably Nicaragua (Momotombo); probably Oaxaca (Tehuantepec); Tamaulipas (Tampico and Matamoras); probably lower California (San Quintin Bay); California (Santa Ana, Los Angeles, Castac Lake, Buena Vista Lake, Alila, Tulare Lake, Fresno, Los Banos, Stockton, Sutter County, and Tule Lake); and Oregon (Klamath Lake). There also is a breeding record for Saskatchewan (Fort Qu'Appelle, June 18, 1894).
Winter range: The black-necked stilt is no doubt resident. throughout most or all of its breeding range in Central and South America. At this season it has been detected north to lower California (San Jose del Cabo, Santiago, and Cape San Lucas); Sinaloa (Mazatlan and Escuinapa); Tamaulipas (Matamoras); Texas (Brownsville and Refugio County); rarely Louisiana (Grand Chenier); Florida (Fort Myers); and Porto Rico.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival are: California, Ojai, March 27, Daggett, April 10, Escondido, April 13, Stockton, April 13, Santa Barbara, April 14, and Fort Crook, April 19, Oregon, Narrows, April 8, and Malheur Lake, April 17; Arizona, Palo Verde, April 4; New Mexico, State College, May 17, and Lake Buford, May 30; Colorado, Denver, May 5; Idaho, Rupert, April 28; and Montana, Billings, May 19. Migrants also have been observed to arrive at points on the Gulf coast as Texas, Port Lavaca, March 18; Louisiana, Sandfly Pass, March 16, and Vermilion Bay, April 27; and Florida, Merritts Island, March 10, and Titusville, March 11.
Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: Oregon, Narrows, October 26; California, Fresno, September 15, Tulare Lake, October 7, Buttonwillow, November 13, and ERiverdale, November 19; Utah, Ogden, October 8; Colorado, Windsor, November 5; and New Mexico, Jornada, September 25.
Casual records: The black-necked stilt has been reported from many of the eastern States but some of these are indefinite or otherwise unsatisfactory. Among those that are considered valid are Mississippi, Vicksburg, July 13, 1913; Alabama, Leighton, August 26, 1892; South Carolina, Sullivans Island, May, 1881 (possibly breeding); New Jersey, Stone Harbor, April 24, 1894, and Cape May, July 21, 1843; New York, Great South Bay, two taken, one in 1843; New Hampshire, Rye Beach, reported as ta.ken several years previous to 1902; Maine, Rockland, one taken early in May, 1889; New Brunswick, Maces Bay, one in September, 1880; Iowa, Hawarden, one in 1890, Webster County, several in the summer of 1898; Wisconsin, Racine, April, 1847; North Dakota, Hankinson, July 29~ 1921; Kansas, Wichita, one killed in 1906; and Nebraska, a few occurrences around Omaha in 1893, 1894, and 1895. One also was taken on San Nicholas Island of the Santa Barbara group, California, on May 25, 1897.
Egg dates: California: 140 records, April 26 to August 4, 70 records, May 21 to June 8. Utah: 12 records, May 10 to June 24, 6 records, May 14 to 23. Texas: 23 records, April 17 to June 11; 12 records, April 26 to May 28. Florida: 90 records, April 14 to June 25; 45 records, April 14 to May 6.