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Sandpipers: Scolopacidae

Behavior And Reproduction

During the nonbreeding season, many sandpiper species feed and rest in large flocks. Sandpipers also migrate in large flocks of just one species. Some sandpipers migrate distances as great as several thousand miles, having built up large fat deposits to sustain them during the trip.

During the breeding season, most sandpipers are territorial, and defend areas of land from other pairs. A few species, however, including the Asian dowitcher, common redshank, and some godwits and curlews, nest close together in breeding colonies. Most sandpiper species are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), with a single male mating with a single female, during the breeding season. However, polygyny (puh-LIH-juh-nee), a single male mating with multiple females, describes the mating behavior of the Eurasian woodcock, white-rumped sandpiper, sharp-tailed sandpiper, and several other species. Polyandry (PAH-lee-an-dree), a single female mating with multiple males, is found in the spotted sandpiper and also in some phalaropes. In the phalaropes, females defend territories while males take care of the nests and chicks alone.

Courtship in sandpipers most frequently involves singing in flight and displays related to finding a site to build the pair's nest. Some species, including the ruff, buff-breasted sandpiper, and great snipe, have leks, special areas where males gather to display for females. Females go to the lek to choose a partner and mate. Species with leks are polygynous (puh-LIH-juh-nus), and males do not participate in care of eggs or young.

The sandpiper nest is most commonly a shallow indentation scraped in the ground and lined with vegetation. However, some species build more complicated nests or use old tree nests that have been abandoned by other birds. Females usually lay four eggs at a time, although some species lay only two or three. Eggs are colored to blend into the environment, and are typically pale with brown or black markings. Chicks hatch after about three weeks. Sandpiper chicks are precocial (pree-KOH-shul), meaning they hatch able to move and covered with down. Chicks usually leave the nest within a day of hatching. Woodcocks and snipes feed their young, but other species do not. However, sandpiper parents do protect their chicks from potential predators by pretending to be injured or by trying to look like rodents, fluffing up their feathers, running, and making squeaky noises. Nonetheless, in most species of sandpipers, fewer than half the chicks survive their first year.


Some species of sandpipers that breed in the Northern Hemisphere share their breeding habitats with small mammals called lemmings. Biologists have observed that in these areas, the breeding success of sandpipers moves in cycles that correspond to changes in the number of lemmings. When there are fewer lemmings, lemming predators such as arctic foxes catch and eat more adult and young sandpipers.

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceBirdsSandpipers: Scolopacidae - Physical Characteristics, Habitat, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Sandpipers And People, Conservation Status - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE