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  • Writer's pictureJeff

Black-necked Stilt

Updated: May 20, 2021

The oldest recorded Black-necked Stilt was at least 12 years, 5 months old. it was ​banded in Venezuela and re-found in the Lesser Antilles.

Notice the baby Stilt under Moms butt.

Black-necked Stilts are among the most stately of the shorebirds, with long rose-pink legs, a long thin black bill, and elegant black-and-white plumage that make them unmistakable at a glance. They move deliberately when foraging, walking slowly through wetlands in search of tiny aquatic prey. When disturbed, stilts are vociferous, to put it mildly, and their high, yapping calls carry for some distance. ​

Black-necked Stilts nest on the ground. They tend to build on surfaces above water, such as small islands, clumps of vegetation, or even, occasionally, floating mats of algae. Both female and male choose the site; they look for places with soft sand or other substrate that can be scraped away to form the nesting depression. The nests are often set among vegetation stubble adjacent to water or on dikes, islands, or high spots with sparse vegetation such as glasswort and saltgrass.

Males and females share the work of nest construction. While one observes, the other scrapes into the dirt with breast and feet to form a depression about 2 inches deep. As they dig, they add small bits of lining back into the nest. Most lining is added to the nest during incubation and consists of whatever material is closest to the nest, including grasses, shells, mud chips, pebbles, and bones. Some nests are left unlined.

Black-necked Stilts are especially animated during the breeding season, when females select males for mating. Just before mating, the female stretches out the neck and preens; the male faces her and does the same. Both dip the bill in the water and preen the breast, and this action becomes increasingly frenzied, with much splashing just prior to copulation. Afterward, the pair crosses their bills and runs together for a few steps. Both sexes participate in incubation and chick-rearing, though males appear to accompany older chicks more often than females. The pair bond is maintained through nesting and chick rearing, but if a nest fails, stilts sometimes begin again with a different mate. Stilts nest in loose colonies and are considered semicolonial, defending individual territories (and guarding mates) but joining with other nesting stilts to drive out threats. Predators, and humans, that happen near nesting stilts soon learn that they are not welcome: any birds that are not incubating often fly around or even form a ring around the predator, calling loudly as they leap up and down, flapping their wings (called a “Popcorn Display” by researchers). They also perform distraction displays, such as pretending to be incubating, then flying off to another site and repeating the deception. Sometimes, stilts will strike humans from behind with their legs if the humans approach the nest too closely. Adult stilts are highly territorial. Males often challenge one another early in the nesting season, stretching out into upright stances, or racing at each other with necks contracted and tails raised. Intense conflicts sometimes involve aerial combat in which males strike each other with bills and legs. Territoriality extends to driving out young birds as well: adults sometimes attack stilt chicks that are not their own and even avocet chicks. Small chicks can dive and swim underwater to avoid hostile adults and predators. When not breeding, Black-necked Stilts are still fairly territorial but often will roost and forage in close proximity, if never in the tight flocks formed by avocets. When resting, stilts sometimes draw up one leg, resting on the other, or sit on the ground, resting on the lower, longer part of the leg (called the tarsometatarsus).

Black-necked Stilt populations have been stable between 1966 and 2015 in continental North America, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 900,000 birds, with a Continental Concern Score of 8 out of 20, indicating it is a species of low conservation concern. There is some evidence of range expansion to the north, possibly attributable to climate change. The Hawaiian subspecies of Black-necked Stilt (knudseni), called the Ae'o in the Hawaiian language, is listed as federally endangered. Ae'o numbers have risen slowly in the past 30 years, but there are still fewer than 2,000 individual breeding birds. Because stilts are wetland birds, they are vulnerable to wetland destruction, degradation, and especially pollution, including pesticides, heavy metals, and other elements such as selenium. Stilts are sometimes monitored as indicators of contaminated irrigation water in the environment at large. In Hawaii and elsewhere, invasive aquatic plants deprive stilts of open water and mudflats. In the nineteenth century, stilts were hunted throughout their range.

Pictures by Jeff, from my backyard. Canon SX70HS

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