Description: 15″ (38cm) ADULT In breeding season is gray-brown overall, but heavily streaked on head and neck, and with dark scallops on lower neck, chest, and flanks. In winter, looks rather uniformly pale gray-brown, palest on underparts. JUVENILE Similar to winter adult, but back and upper wing coverts are washed and spotted yellow-buff with pale spots.
Voice: In springtime, the Willet’s signature pill-will-willet call rings out over its breeding territory in the morning and evening, with competing males calling throughout the day. Eastern Willets give a slightly higher-pitched, more rapidly repeated version of the song than Western birds. When chicks are present, Willets respond to predators with a single-note staccato kleep, and high-pitched alarm calls, and take up sentry posts atop tall trees to warn of threats. They make a kyah-yah call when crossing another’s territory or as a way to maintain contact during migratory flights and when shuttling between foraging and breeding areas. When approached, Willets may react with high-pitched, agitated kip-kip-kip, wiek, and kreeliii alarm calls.
Habitat: Locally common, nesting beside marshes and wintering on coastal beaches. Represented in eastern North America by ssp. semipalmatus, which is darker (notably in breeding season) than its western counterpart.
Nesting: Clutch size is 4 greenish or brownish eggs with bold, dark brown irregular spots. The male Willet initiates nest building by scraping out a small depression with his feet and breast in the grass, on beach sand, or on bare ground. If nesting in grass, the female then pulls in surrounding vegetation to hide the nest site, lining the grass nest cup with finer grasses and pebbles. If built on bare ground, the birds bring grass from a distance to line the scrape. The finished nest is just over 6 inches across and 2 inches deep. Western birds nest inland on the ground along pond edges and other seasonal wetlands, or on raised sites near water, often in native grasslands. In the Great Basin, nests are often built at the edge of sagebrush near ponds. In the East, Willets nest in cordgrass, saltgrass, and beachgrass near saltmarshes and on sand dunes, and on bare ground or in short vegetation sheltered by barrier dunes. A pair searches for nest sites together, typically with the male leading the female through the habitat and making trial scrapes for the female to evaluate.
- Willets breeding in the interior of the West differ from the Atlantic Coastal form in ecology, shape, and subtly in calls. Western Willets breed in freshwater habitats, and are slightly larger and paler gray. Eastern Willets have stouter bills and more barring on their chest and back. The difference in pitch between the calls of the two subspecies is very difficult for a person to detect, but the birds can hear the difference and respond more strongly to recorded calls of their own type.
- Although both parents incubate the eggs, only the male Willet spends the night on the nest.
- Willets and other shorebirds were once a popular food. In 1871, John James Audubon wrote that the eggs were tasty and the young “grow rapidly, become fat and juicy, and by the time they are able to fly, afford excellent food.” By the early 1900s, Willets had almost vanished north of Virginia. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned market hunting and marked the start of the Willet’s comeback.
- Like Killdeer, Willets will pretend to be disabled by a broken wing in order to draw attention to themselves and lure predators away from their eggs or chicks.
- Because they find prey using the sensitive tips of their bills, and not just eyesight, Willets can feed both during the day and at night.
Resource material provided by:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology/ http://www.allaboutbirds.com