Greater Yellowlegs

Tringa melanoleuca

Greater_Yellowlegs_3-17-16.jpg

Photo of a greater yellowlegs wading in water.
The greater yellowlegs is large, with a slightly upturned bill and long, bright yellow legs.
Jim Rathert
Family

Scolopacidae (sandpipers) in the order Charadriiformes (shorebirds, gulls, terns)

Description

A large shorebird, black- and grayish-brown-streaked and -spotted above and on the breast; white below and on the rump. The bill is mostly black, slightly upturned, and more than 1½ times the length of the head, measured along the same line as the bill. Legs long, bright yellow. Call is a loud series of “tew, tew, tew” notes, usually 3 or more in a row. Calls can be confusing when birds are alarmed and taking off.

Similar species: Lesser yellowlegs has a straight, proportionately shorter bill (less than 1½ times the head length); its call is a soft “tu” or “tu tu.” It is also smaller overall, but that may not be apparent unless the two yellowlegs are seen side by side.

The greater yellowlegs is one of the more common of about 35 species of sandpipers and other shorebirds that migrate through Missouri in spring and fall. It takes effort to learn how to distinguish them. ID clues include plumage pattern, leg and bill color, silhouette (body shape and proportions), size, call, and foraging behavior.

Size

Length: 14 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

Greater_Yellowlegs_3-17-16.jpg

Photo of a greater yellowlegs wading in water.
Greater Yellowlegs
The greater yellowlegs is large, with a slightly upturned bill and long, bright yellow legs.

Greater_Yellowlegs_among_emergent_plants_3-17-16.jpg

Photo of a greater yellowlegs among emergent aquatic plants.
Greater Yellowlegs
The greater yellowlegs commonly forages on flooded pastures, flooded row-crop stubble, mudflats, shorelines, and marshes.

Greater_Yellowlegs_foraging_in_water_3-17-16.jpg

Photo of a greater yellowlegs foraging in shallow water.
Greater Yellowlegs
The greater yellowlegs wades in shallow water, sweeping its bill side to side through the water.

Greater_Yellowlegs_foraging_on_muddy_shore_3-17-16.jpg

Photo of a greater yellowlegs foraging on a muddy shore.
Greater Yellowlegs
The greater yellowlegs is a large shorebird with long, bright yellow legs.

Greater_Yellowlegs_on_muddy_shore_3-17-16.jpg

Photo of two greater yellowlegs standing on a muddy shore.
Greater Yellowlegs
Flying north for the breeding season, greater yellowlegs pass through Missouri in late March through early May, peaking the second half of April.

Greater_Yellowlegs_wading_3-17-16.jpg

Photo of a greater yellowlegs wading in shallow shoreline water.
Greater Yellowlegs
If alarmed, greater yellowlegs take flight but rarely go very far; they often circle back to the original location. Landing, they float momentarily on extended wings.
Habitat and conservation

Common migrant foraging on flooded pastures, flooded row-crop stubble, mudflats, shorelines, and marshes for worms and other invertebrates.

Foods

The greater yellowlegs wades in shallow water, sweeping its bill side to side through the water. It eats worms and other invertebrates (both aquatic and terrestrial), plus other small animals, when they come in contact with the bill. This species sometimes actively chases its prey about. Foraging behavior is one of the clues for identifying the greater yellowlegs from other shorebirds.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common transient; accidental winter visitor.

Life cycle

Greater yellowlegs pass north through the continental United States to breed in Canada and Alaska. They are ground nesters. As migrants, they appear in Missouri in late March through early May, peaking the second half of April. Returning south, they reappear in Missouri in late July through the end of October, peaking late August through early October. They spend winters along the southern coast of the United States and southward all the way to the southern tip of South America.

Human connections

If alarmed, greater yellowlegs take flight but rarely go very far; they often circle back to the original location. Landing, they float momentarily on extended wings. This made them easy targets for gunners, in the days before conservation laws were enacted to save many shorebirds from extinction.

Ecosystem connections

In mixed flocks of thousands of different kinds of shorebirds, the greater yellowlegs, with its piercing alarm call, is often the first to sound an alarm when danger threatens. Oldtimers called it “tattler” or “tell-tale” for this reason. Today, biologists study the dynamics of such communication between species.