Bird Files: The Spotted Sandpiper's Secret

  • A Spotted Sandpiper chick. Males hatch the eggs and care for the young. Photo: Brette Soucie/USFWS

August 14, 2014

In a world where we assume it’s always mama bird sitting on the nest, the Spotted Sandpiper has a secret. The female of the species is quite the cad, laying her eggs and leaving the male to incubate and care for the chicks.

In fact, female "spotties, "as we like to call them, may go on to mate with up to four males. The eggs she lays for one male may actually be fathered by a different male in a previous mating. Once those eggs are laid, if you get too close to a nest, the male may scold you with a harsh, whining call.

Scientists call the female’s breeding strategy polyandry. It may account for the Spotted Sandpiper being the most abundant and widespread breeding sandpiper in North America. Another reason is that Spotted Sandpipers are not picky about habitat. They can be found near any kind of freshwater and along the ocean shore.

The Spotted Sandpiper’s distinctive spotted chest and bobbing tail make it easy to recognize, unlike many shorebirds, which are notoriously hard to identify. Its multi-part, “WEET WEET WEET” call should help clinch the identification.

And if you ever spot a “spottie” with some chicks, that’s dad chasing after the youngins’.

Bird calls from The Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology recorded by Gerrit Vyn and David S. Herr.