The Short-billed Dowitcher’s migration must take it from Canada and Alaska to coastal areas of the U.S. and Mexico as well as points south. It is similar in appearance to its relative, the Long-billed Dowitcher, but one behavioral difference is the Short-billed Dowitcher’s preference for coastal areas during migration, so it is less often seen inland.
Relatively tame and very social, Short-billed Dowitchers are often seen foraging together in flocks. They are thought to begin breeding at age one or two, and have been known to live over 13 years in the wild.
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Description of the Short-billed Dowitcher
The Short-billed Dowitcher is a chunky shorebird with a very long, straight bill and a white line above the eye.
-Tawny and black upperparts.
Length: 11 in. Wingspan: 19 in.
Sexes are similar.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter birds have grayish upperparts and whitish underparts.
Juveniles resemble winter adults.
Mudflats and tidal areas.
Forages by probing mud with its bill in an up and down motion.
Breeds from Alaska to eastern Canada and winters along the coasts of the U.S. and Mexico.
Adult Short-billed Dowitchers migrate in the fall prior to the juveniles.
Dowitchers can swim, and do so more often than many shorebirds.
The call is a series of “tu-tu-tu” notes.
- Long-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitchers are very similar. See vocalizations.
The nest is a depression lined with plant materials.
Color: Olive with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 21 days. ?
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the male for some time.
Bent Life History of the Short-billed Dowitcher
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 Short-billed Dowitcher – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
LIMNODROMUS GRISEUS GRISEUS (Gmelin)
The dowitcher, or, as I should prefer to see it called, the redbreasted snipe, occurs as a species entirely across the American continent. The long-billed dowitcher, the western form, was originally described as a distinct, full species; it has since been reduced to the rank of a subspecies, because of very evident intergradation; and now some very good ornithologists are in doubt as to the propriety of recognizing the two varieties in nomenclature at all, because no distinctly different breeding ranges for the two forms have been established, and typical (so-called) eastern birds have never been found breeding anywhere. What few breeding birds have come from Alaska and northern Mackenzie all seem to be scolopaceus, but griseus may still be found breeding there when we have larger series. I have had considerable correspondence with Prof. William Rowan about the breeding dowitchers of Alberta, including interchange of specimens. He seems to think that the Alberta birds are constantly distinct from either griseus or scolopaceus and perhaps worthy of a name. It seems to me that they are strictly intermediate and should not be named. In a letter recently received from P. A. Taverner he seems inclined to recognize the Alberta bird as a “short-billed bird resembling the eastern most, but intermediate, and with spotting characters different from either.”
On migrations, and in winter, both forms are found entirely across the continent. The best that can be said is that griseus is more common on the Atlantic and scolopaceus is more common on the Pacific coast. Dr. Louis B. Bishop, with whom I have discussed this question, is inclined to call one a mutant of the other; he has some 200 dowitchers in his collection, from all parts of the country, those from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts being about equally divided and the two forms being about equally represented. In analyzing his series, taking into account length of bill, length of wing and brightness of color, he finds that: of griseus, 86 per cent are from the Atlantic coast, 2 per cent from the interior, and 12 per cent from the Pacific coast; and of scolopaceus, 14 per cent are from the Atlantic coast, 30 per cent from the interior, and 56 per cent from the Pacific coast. While collecting near Pasadena, California, on April 25, 1923, he shot into a large flock of dowitchers and picked up nine birds, all but one of which were typical griseus, in bill, wing, and color.
Spring: The last of the dowitchers which winter in Florida, or migrate through there, leave for the north during May, though a general northward movement has been going on during April. The earliest birds sometimes reach Massachusetts by May 1, but usually the main flight comes along about May 20 and lasts for about ten days. Audubon (1840) observed large numbers of this species flying eastward along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas during April. And Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says that “these birds migrate to their breeding grounds in the far north between May 1 and 15, and when the tide is low in the afternoon and a light southerly wind prevails, flock after flock can be seen migrating in a northwesterly direction. I have yet to see these birds migrate along the coast line in the spring.” This would seem to indicate an overland route from South Carolina, in addition to the Atlantic coast route referred to above. Professor Rowan writes to me that dowitchers are common on both migrations in Alberta., and says:
In a long series of spring and fall skins, there is every gradation from the supposed typical eastern form (grigcus) to the so-called long-hilled form (scolopaceus). Bill lengths and colors do not correspond as they are supposed to do. As far as this district is concerned, there is absolutely no evidence in support of the splitting of this species into two races. The only two really long-billed birds that have been taken, were deliberately collected from a flock as their hills were so obviously longer than those of their companions even In life. Intermediate lengths, forming a nicely graded series, have been secured. The colors and markings of the spring birds are infinite in variety, and do not correspond to the bill lengths that should go with them.
There is a northward migration through the interior, in which this form is undoubtedly represented, but to what extent it is hard to tell, as it is impossible to separate all the records. Both forms are recorded on migrations in California and British Columbia.
Courtship: Richard C. Harlow has sent me some brief notes on the courtship of this species, as seen on its breeding grounds in Alberta. There were at least eight pairs of birds in the vicinity and they kept up their courtships until he left on June 9. The males apparently outnumber the females, for at least two females were seen surrounded by little groups of three or four males, frequently singing and displaying. “The male frequently strutted like a woodcock and displayed, and several times arose and gave his flight song, a clear, liquid, musical, contralto gurgle.” Professor Rowan thinks that both sexes indulge in this song.
Nesting: The breeding range of the eastern dowitcher is imperfectly known or not known at all, unless we include the birds which breed in Alberta under this form, where in my opinion they belong. Prof. ‘Wells W. Cooke (1912) writes:
The nest and eggs of the dowitcher are not yet known to science, nor has the species been seen in summer at any place where it was probably breeding. The dowitcher is a common migrant on the coasts of New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, and in fall is sometimes very abundant. Farther north Its numbers decrease: New Hampshire, tolerably common in fall, no spring records; Maine, tolerably common spring and fall; Quebec, rare migrant; New Brunswick, no records; Nova Scotia, once (Sharpe) ; Prince Edward Island, once; Ungava, a few in August, 1860, at Henley Harbor (Cones), one June 10, 1883, at Fort Chime (Turner). North of Ungava, the only record is that of a single accidental occurrence at Fiskennes, Greenland (Relnhardt). Evidently the dowitcher does not breed in any numbers, on the eastern coast of Ungava. The probability that it does not breed there at all Is strengthened by the fact that several first-class observers, who during the fall migration were in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, did not see any of the birds. It undoubtedly does not go into northeastern Keewatin and the islands of the Province of Franklin, for it is not reported by the ~arious expeditions that have traveled and wintered In those districts, while the specimens taken on the west coast of Hudson Bay belong to the form called dcolopaceus. The only district left for the breeding ground is the interior of Ungava and the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.
W. E. Clyde Todd, who has probably done more field work than anyone else on the east coast of Hudson Bay, writes to me:
Replying to your query about the dowitcher, it is my opInion that this species does not breed in the interior of northern Ungava, but I admit I have nothing to prove It one way or the other. It seems to me, though, that If It did breed there, it would he far more common than it is at the southern end of James Bay In migration, Instead of being one of the rarer kinds. I never saw It anywhere north of this part, but then I have not been in northern Ungava in the breeding season.
Turner’s record of a single bird at Fort Chimo, on June 10, 1883, seems to be the only peg on which to hang the Ungava theory; and this may have been a straggler. The Alberta birds are somewhat intermediate; and probably typical grireu3, if there is any such thing, will be found breeding somewhere in the muskeg regions of central Canada between Alberta and Hudson Bay.
There are several sets of dowitcher’s eggs in collections, from this general region, collected in 1903 and 1906, which have been looked upon with some suspicion; one came from Hayes River Flat, 25 miles north of 55O~ one from just south of Little Slave Lake, and three from Little Red Deer River, Alberta. Now that the dowitcher has been definitely shown to breed in Alberta, these records look authentic.
To A. D. Henderson and his guests is due all the credit for recent positive evidence. On June 18, 1924, he found a pair of dowitchers with two young, only a day or two old, “near a small lake in a muskeg about 17 miles northeast of Fort Assiniboine.” The following season he found dowitchers again at three different places in the same region, “probably a dozen pairs in all”; and on June 2, about 35 miles northeast of Fort Assiniboine, he took his first set of three fresh eggs. The nest was “in a muskeg in open growth of small tamarac trees about 125 yards from a lake”; he describes it as “a hollow in a lump of moss, scantily lined with a few tamarac twigs, leaves, and fine dry grass, at the root of a small dead alder about 12 inches high”; it measured 1~4 inches deep and 4 inches across; the top was 4 inches above standing water.
Mr. Harlow, who was with Mr. Henderson the next year, 1926, took two sets of four eggs each. One “nest was in an extensive tundralike muskeg, very quaking and wet, and the nest was in a small bunch of dwarf birch, not over 12 inches high, on the end of a little ridge of moss and completely surrounded on three sides by water.” The male was seen “singing” near the nest. He joined the female after she had fluttered off the nest and the pair were seen feeding together; several times they stood erect and rubbed their bills together. After the eggs were taken a set of phalarope’s eggs was placed in the nest; the dowitcher returned took one look at the eggs and then flew away and was never seen near the nest again.
Eggs: One of Mr. Henderson’s sets was apparently complete with three eggs, but four is the usual number. There is probably no constant difference between the eggs of this and its long-billed relative. One of Mr. Harlow’s sets he describes as “light olive-green, rather lightly marked with pin points, spots, flecks, and a few blotches of dark umber and dark brown.” The other set, he says, is slightly darker olive-green and is “much more heavily spotted and blotched with small and large spots of umber and brown and under shell markings of a lighter color.” The measurements of 18 Alberta eggs average 40.8 by 29.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 44 by 29.5, 41 by 30.3, 38.2 by 28.5, and 38.7 by 27.7 millimeters.
Plumages: The plumages and molts, which are the same in both forms, are fully described under the long-billed dowitcher.
Food: The favorite feeding grounds of the dowitchers are the mud flats and sand flats in sheltered bays and estuaries, or the borders of shallow ponds on the marshes, where they associate freely with small plovers and sandpipers. Although not inclined to move about actively, their feeding motions are very rapid, as they probe in the mud or sand with quick, perpendicular strokes of their long bills, driving them in their full length again and again in rapid succession; while feeding in shallow water the whole head is frequently immersed and sometimes several strokes are made with the head under water. Dr. E. II. P. Janvrin writes to me:
Mr. S. T. Nichols and I watched three Individuals feeding on the salt meadows late In the afternoon, continuing our observations until it was so dark that we could hardly distinguish the birds any longer; at which time the birds were still feeding. The question arose whether dowitchers might not be nocturnal In their feeding habits, as is the case with the woodcock and Wilson’s snipe, since the sense of sight is certainly not essential to their probing for food.
Various observers have noted among the food items of the dowitcher grasshoppers, beetles, flies, maggots, marine worms, oyster worms, leeches, water bugs, fish eggs, small mollusks, seeds of aquatic plants, and the roots of eelgrass.
Behavior: Dowitchers are the gentlest and most unsuspicious of shore birds, which has made them easy prey for the avarmious gunner. Their flight is swift and steady, often protracted and sometimes at a great elevation, when looking for feeding places. They usually fly in compact flocks by themselves, sometimes performing interesting evolutions high in the air. They often fly, however, in flocks with other small waders, but the dowitehers are generally bunched together in the flock; I once shot four dowitchers out of a mixed flock without hitting any of the smaller birds. When a flock of dowitchers alights the birds are closely bunched, but they soon scatter out and begin to feed. If a flock is shot into, the sympathetic and confiding birds return again and again to their fallen companions until only a pitiful remnant is left to finally escape. Such slaughter of the innocents well-nigh exterminated this gentle species; but, now that it is protected, it is beginning to increase again.
Although all shore birds can swim, the dowitcher seems to be especially adept at it Doctor Coues (1874) writes:
Being partly web-footed, this snipe swims tolerably well for a little distance in an emergency, as when it may get for a moment beyond its depth in wading about, or when it may fail, broken-winged, on the water. On such an occasion as this last, I have seen one swim bravely for 20 or 30 yards, with a curious bobbing motion of the bead and corresponding jerking of the tail, to a hiding place In the rank grass across the pool. When tbus hidden they keep perfectly still, and may be picked up without resistance, except a weak flutter, and perhaps a low, pleading cry far pity on their pain and helplessness. When feeding at their ease, in consciousness of peace and security, few birds are of more pleasing appearance. Their movements are graceful and their attitudes often beautifully statuesque.
W. E. D. Scott (1881) says:
A curious habit of this species was noted at the mouth of the Withlacoochee, where I saw the birds alight in very deep water and swhn about for considerable time. This occurred in every instance after a flock had been fired at, and I thought at first that the birds had been wounded, but after observing the occurrence a number of times and on watching the birds while in the water I concluded that such was not the case. Those I noted were generally solitary individuals, but twice I saw three, and once four, alight lxi the water, swim lightly and gracefully about, and, when disturbed, rise easily and fly away.
Voice: John T. Nichols has sent me the following notes on the characteristic calls of this species.
The flight note of the dowitcher resembles that of the lesser yallowlegs but is recognizably different, less loud and more hurried, usually suggesting the bird’s name: doxc’itck, or dowitcher, sometimes of a single syllable. This call is subject to considerable variation. When used as a regular flight or recognition note I believe it Is most frequently two-syllabled, clear and full. When the call becomes more abrupt and emphatic and the last syllable is multiplied it seems to indicate that the bird is excited rather than to have other especial significance; thus, dowicheche.
This note appears to be identical in the eastern dowitcher and the longbilled race which I have studied in Florida. Other minor calls of the dowitcher are single, unloud, low-pitched chaps with which a flock manmuvred about decoys (Long Island, August) resembling an analogous yellowleg note; a low rattle when dropping down to alight (Long Island, May) ; a mellow, plovcrlike cluec, suggesting a call of single lesser yellowlegs when loath to leave a feeding round, calling to other more restless Individuals of their kind. This was beard from a single dowitcher on the ground when a flock of lesser yellowlegs was flushed a little way off. When these departed it took wing with more usual dowitcher calls and followed after (Long Island, July). I have on record also a startled chee from an extra tame long-billed dowitcher in Florida, flushed by being almost struck by something thrown at it.
While observing the shore bird migration on the coast of New Jersoy, during the last week of May, with Dr. Harry C. Oberholser, we frequently heard the pretty and vivacious flight song of the dowitcher. It was a sibilant, whistling song, rather loud and with a staccato effect. Doctor Oberholser, whose ears are better than mine now are, wrote down his impressions of it for me. Three short notes were heard separately, tilz7oo, tidilee and tickilee, accented on the first syllable; the last two were commonest. The complete song sounded like tidilee-ti-tsclta-tsch a-tscka or tickilee-ti-tsocka-tschatscha, with numerous variations and combinations of the above notes, a very striking song. This is somewhat similar in form to the song of the long-billed dowitcher heard on its breeding grounds and described by Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) ; it is probably a courtship song.
Field marks: The dowitcher when standing is a fat, chunky bird, with short greenish legs and a very long bill, with which it probes perpendicularly. In flight it also appears stout and usually carries its long bill pointed slightly downward; in adult plumage it appears very dark colored. It has none of the slender appearance of the yellowlegs and its flight is steadier. When seen flying away from the observer the grayish white central band on its back is conspicuous, as are the black and white, barred tail feathers.
Fall: The dowitcher is one of the earliest of the fall migrants; probably the first arrivals are birds that, for one reason or another, have failed to raise broods of young, for the time elapsing between the late-spring migration and the early-fall flight is not sufficient for successful breeding. The first adults arrive on Cape Cod early in July; my earliest date is July 4. Adults are common all through July, and I have seen them as late as August 16. The young birds come along later, from August 8 to September 25. While with us they frequent the mud flats and edges of muddy ponds or bays in the marshes; they are seldom seen on the sandy beaches or far out on the sand flats. They associate freely with the smaller sandpipers, least, and semipalmated, or with the semipalmated plover and turnstones. Often in the great flocks of these small sandpipers a number of dowitchers may be easily recognized by their much larger size and very dark appearance, also by their much longer bills. They are then often concentrated in compact groups or strung out in a long line, close to the edge of the water, probing in the soft mud with quick strokes of their long bills. They are easily approached at such times, as they are almost as tame and unsuspicious as the little peep. When the flats are covered at high tide these birds resort to the salt marshes or meadows, where they rest and sleep; in such places they often lie very close and flush singly, much after the manner of Wilson snipe.
Game: Dowitchers, or “brown backs,” as they are called on Cape Cod, have been popular game birds, and immense numbers have been shot in past years. Audubon (1840) says that “it is not at all uncommon to shoot 20 or 30 of them at once. I have been present when 127 were killed by discharging three barrels, and have heard of many dozens having been procured at a shot.” Edward Sturtevant says that a market hunter -near Newport, Rhode Island, shot 1,058 dowitchers during the years from 1867 to 1874. Their popularity and their tameness nearly caused the extermination of the species. Mr. John C. Cahoon (1888) wrote then:
They have decreased very fast during the last five years, and where we saw a flock of several dozens then we now see them singly or in bunches not exceedlag 10 or 12. They are the least shy of any of the shore birds, and it is due to this fact that they have decreased so fast. They are easily decoyed, and although they fly swiftly their motion Is steady and they keep closely together. They alight In a compact bunch, and the gunner usually shoots Into them before they scatter out. Many are killed by a single discharge, and those that remain spring up with a sharp whistle and fly a short distance away, when hearing what they think to be the call of a deserted comrade they wheel about and come skimming bravely hack to the murderous spot where they were first shot at. Again they are shot at, and again the remaining half dozen are loath to leave their dead and dying companions, and return to share their fate. One or two may escape, and as they drop silently down on some lonely sand spit, sad relics of their departed companions, what sorrowful thoughts must be theirs as they wait for their comrades that will never come.
Since that time the species has been saved by removing it from the game-bird list, and it has increased considerably until now it is again a fairly common bird. Whey flying in flocks it is too easily killed to offer the sportsman much of a thrill, but when flushed singly on the meadows it has more of a sporting chance for its life.
Range: Chiefly eastern North America, islands of the Caribbean Sea and central South America; casual in Greenland, Alaska, the British Isles, and France.
Breeding range: The dowitchers which have been found breedme, in Alberta, from Little Red Deer River to Fort Assiniboine, are intermediate between griseus and scolopaceus, but nearer the former. Eggs have also been taken at Hayes River Flat and just south of Little Slave Lake, which are probably of this form. The breeding range of typical grieeu8 probably lies between these points and the west side of Hudson Bay and perhaps extends north to the Arctic coast.
Winter range : North to Louisiana (State game preserve, and Marsh Island) and probably rarely to North Carolina (Fort Macon). East to rarely North Carolina (Fort Macon); South Carolina (near Charleston, and Frogmore); Georgia (Savannah and Blackbeard Island); Florida (Amelia Island, Orange Hammock, and Bassenger); Bahama Islands (Great Inagua); Jamaica; Lesser Antilles (Guadeloupe, Barbadoes and Grenada); Trinidad; and Brazil (Para and Bahia). South to Brazil (Bahia); and northern Peru (Tumbez). West to northern Peru (Tumbez); Colombia (Medellin) ; Cuba (Isle of Pines) ; western Florida (Key West, Fort Myers, Sarasota Bay, Tarpon Springs, and Pensacola); Louisiana (Marsh Island); and southern California.
Spring migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Virginia, Hog Island, April 15, Norfolk, April 17, and Locustville, April 25; New Jersey, Long Beach, May 6, New Brunswick, May 16; New York, Shinnecock Bay Light, May 15, and Long Island, April 19; Connecticut, Norwalk, May 15; Rhode Island, Newport, May 20; Massachusetts, Monomoy Island, May 1; Quebec, Green Island, May 25; Quebec, May 28, and Fort Chimo, June 10; and New Brunswick, Grand Manan, June 13.
Late dates of spring departure are: New Jersey, Long Beach, May 20, Cape May, May 20, New Brunswick, May 23, and Elizabeth, May 31; New York, New York City, May 30, Long Island, June 12, and Long Beach, June 23.
Fall migration: Early dates of fall arrival are: Massachusetts, Edgartown, July 4, Dennis, July 13, Monomoy Island, July 13, Marthas Vineyard, July 24, and Harvard, July 26; Rhode Island, Newport, July 10; Connecticut, Meriden, July 23; New York, Long Island, June 29, and East Hampton, July 1; New Jersey, Long Beach, July 6, and Cape May, July 10; Virginia, Cobb Island, June 19, and Bone Island, July 14; Georgia, Savannah, September 23; and Mississippi, Bay St. Louis, August 24. A few individuals may be found throughout the summer on the coast of Florida and other Southern States, but they are not known to breed in these regions.
Late dates of fall departure arc: New Brunswick, Tabusintoc, October 23; Quebec, Labrador, August 23, and Montreal, September 27; Maine, Portland, August 13; Massachusetts, Harvard, August 25, Edgartown, September 4, and Cape Cod, October 23; Rhode Island, Newport, October 20; New York, Rochester, September 13, Orient, September 21, New York City, October 31, and Great West Bay Light, November 2; New Jersey, Long Beach, October 1; and Virginia, Hog Island, November 12.
Casual records: The dowitcher has many times been taken outside of what appeaxs to be its normal range, in fact there are so many records for the interior that it seems certain individuals regularly follow the flyway of the Mississippi Valley.
Among these records are Bermuda, Harris Bay, September 26, 1847, and August 21, 1848, Pearl Island, September 10, 1874, and Peniston Pond, September 17, 1875; District of Columbia, Washington, September 1879; Pennsylvania, Erie, July 19, 1892, and Carlisle, August 12, 1844, and September 12, 1844; Tennessee, Reelfoot Lake, November 27, 1875; Illinois, Mount Carmel, October 9, 1875, Calumet, October, 1881, South Chicago, May 6, 1893, and Grand Crossing, July 19, 1893; Indiana, Liverpool, September 9, 1892; Ohio, Pelee Island, August 10, 1924, and September 3, 1910, and Columbus, October 16, 1921; Michigan, Wayne County, July 16, 1906, August 26, 1905, and October 7, 1890; Ingham County, August 26, 1897, and East Lansing, August 14, 1908; Ontario, Toronto, August 1, 1894, August 24, 1891, and September 15, 1889, and Ottawa, May 9, 1890; Iowa, Burlington, August 6, 1893, and August 16, 1893, and Marshalltown, August 10, 1914; Wisconsin, Lake Koshkonong, August, 1886; Texas, Corpus Christi, May 18, 1886, San Patricio County, June 11, 1887, Fort Clarke, April 26, 1882, Padre Island, August 26 and 27, 1891, Aransas Bay, August 14, 1905, and Rockport, February 3, 1909; Idaho, St. Joseph Marshes, September 12, 1895 or 1896; Mackenzie, Fort Rae, June 9, 1893; Greenland, Fiskenaesset in 1854; Ungava, Fort Chimo, June 10, 1883; and Alaska, Nushagak, September 24, 1882, and June 9, 1884.
There also are 15 records of its occurrence in the British Isles; one eath near Havre, and Picardy, France, and northeastern Siberia, near Jakutsk.
Egg dates: Alberta: 9 records, June 1 to 16.