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Wilson’s Phalarope

A small to medium-sized shorebird species with a grayish-brown and white plumage, a long, thin bill, and a preference for shallow wetlands and saline lakes across North and South America, and it is known for its unusual mating behavior where females are more brightly colored and take on multiple mates.

Wilson’s Phalarope

The Wilson’s Phalarope breeds over a large area of the western U.S. and Canada, and after the breeding season the adults gather in huge flocks to molt before migrating to South America for the winter. The Wilson’s Phalarope’s migration take place at night, and if birds have sufficient fat they can fly from California to Ecuador nonstop.

Wilson’s Phalaropes are very social year-round, and do not establish nesting territories. Surprisingly, there are several records of nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Such cowbird eggs are doomed to failure because young shorebirds leave the nest very rapidly and forage for their own food, something cowbird young can not do.

Description of the Wilson’s Phalarope


The Wilson’s Phalarope is a small shorebird with a long, needle-like bill. It is slender, with an upright posture. The plumage varies considerably by gender and season.

Color pattern is reversed from trypical.  Females being brightly colored and males much more subdued.  Breeding males have a white throat, pale reddish hind neck, white underparts, grayish upperparts, and black legs.  They resemble the female shonw below but less strongly marked.  Length: 9 in.  Wingspan: 17 in.



Breeding females are boldly marked, with a wide black stripe running through the eyes and down the sides of the neck, a white throat, reddish neck, grayish upperparts with black and reddish stripes, and black legs.

wilsons phalarope female breeding gl
Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds are pale grayish above and white below, with yellow legs.

Wilsons Phalarope winter side gl
Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Wilsons Phalarope winter flight
Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Juveniles are similar to winter adults, but have darker brown upperparts and a brown cap.

Wilsons Phalarope juvenile gl
Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Wilson’s Phalaropes inhabit shallow lakes and marshes, as well as water treatment ponds.


Aquatic insects and crustaceans.


Wilson’s Phalaropes forage by swimming, often spinning rapidly in a circle to stir up prey. They also probe in mud or pick along shorelines.


Wilson’s Phalaropes breed in western Canada and the northern U.S. They winter primarily in South America, with a few wintering in southern California and southern Texas. They can be seen in migration across much of the U.S., though they are more common in the west. The population appears to be declining.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Wilson’s Phalarope.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

– Female, Top of wing – May

– Underside of same wing

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

Male Wilson’s Phalaropes incubate the eggs and care for the young, and females may mate with more than one male.

The Wilson’s Phalarope is the only phalarope that breeds in the lower 48 states.

Unlike most other shorebirds, phalaropes have lobed toes.


The flight call is a grunt or moan.

Similar Species

  • Wilson’s Phalaropes are more erratic and active in foraging than yellowlegs or Stilt Sandpipers.
  • Red Phalarope
    Red Phalaropes have shorter, thicker bills.  Breeding plumaged Red Phalaropes can not be confused with other species. Primarily winters at sea.Red Phalarope
  • Red-necked Phalarope
    Red-necked Phalaropes have more patterened back in breeding plumage, wide, dark line through and behind the eye in non-breeding plumage. 


    Red-necked Phalarope


The nest is a depression lined with grass, and is placed near water.

Number:  4.
Color: Buffy in color with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 18-27 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though associating with the adult male for some time.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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