Sandpiper

Last updated: January 2, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© iStock.com/Paolino Massimiliano Manuel

Some sandpipers can migrate more than 8,000 miles without stopping!


Sandpiper Facts

Prey
Invertebrates, insects, spiders, clams, shrimp, frogs, fish, etc.
Main Prey
Invertebrates
Name Of Young
Chicks
Group Behavior
  • Flock
  • Solitary/Group
  • Solitary/Pairs
  • Pair
  • Flocks
Fun Fact
Some sandpipers can migrate more than 8,000 miles without stopping!
Biggest Threat
Human activity and habitat destruction, introduced species, climate change
Most Distinctive Feature
long bills and long legs
Distinctive Feature
Usually brown or gray; long legs of varying colors; bills vary from shorter to extra long, sometimes with special features;
Other Name(s)
They go by many names, including sandpipers, godwits, snipes, curlews, dowitchers, phalaropes, woodcocks, tattlers, yellowlegs, greenshanks, redshanks, turnstones, the Sanderling, the Surfbird, the Ruff, and the Dunlin.
Wingspan
Up to 43 inches
Incubation Period
Varies
Age Of Independence
Varies
Age Of Fledgling
Varies
Habitat
Shores or grasslands, sometimes wooded areas
Predators
Eagles, owls, Peregrine Falcons, foxes, bears, wolves, ermines, wolverines and other weasels, crows, gulls, cats, other birds, mice, rats, and deer
Diet
Omnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
  • Flock
  • Nocturnal/Crepuscular
Favorite Food
Invertebrates
Number Of Species
95
Location
Worldwide except Antarctica
Average Clutch Size
3
Group
Flock
Nesting Location
Usually on the ground, sometimes in trees depending on the species
Migratory
1

Sandpiper Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Yellow
  • Red
  • White
Skin Type
Feathers
Top Speed
60 mph
Weight
1 ounce to 3 pounds
Length
5.5 inches to 26 inches
Venomous
No
Aggression
Medium

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Some sandpipers can migrate more than 8,000 miles without stopping!

Picture a sandpiper. You might be imagining a small bird with long legs, a rounded head with a medium to long bill, and a long and somewhat slender body. Perhaps it is gray or brown, mostly white, or some combination of colors. You’re probably imagining a shore bird, strolling along and occasionally poking its bill in the sand to catch prey.

All over the world, with the exception of Antarctica, birds of similar description exist. Almost 100 different species are members of the family Scolopacidae, and all are considered sandpipers. Some fit the description above quite precisely, while others vary. This family includes birds named curlews, snipes, godwits, woodcocks, dowitchers, sandpipers and more. If you’ve been near the shore, you’ve probably seen them. Let’s get to know more about these remarkable birds.

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Incredible Sandpiper Facts

  • Nearly 100 species of sandpipers are recognized, though some are extinct.
  • Regardless of their names, all members of the family Scolopacidae are considered sandpipers.
  • Sandpipers range in weight from just one ounce to three pounds.
  • A Bar-tailed Godwit, a sandpiper from the Limosa genus, holds the record for the longest non-stop migration.
  • Sandpipers are considered a traditional food for some Indigenous people of North America.
  • Some sandpipers leave the incubation and raising of chicks to the fathers.

Where to Find Sandpipers

Sandpipers can be found all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica. Many varieties live exclusively on or near the shore. Others live in grasslands or wetlands. Most prefer to at least have access to water sources. They may be found in open places such as farms, airports, even golf courses. Some, such as the American Woodcock, spend their time in both open and wooded habitats.  

Sandpiper Nests

Sandpiper nests vary based on the individual species and their preferred habitat. They make their nests on the ground, but the location and composition can differ considerably. Some of these birds nest only next to the shore. Their nests may be simply a scratch in the soil or sand. Others make nests in open areas in a tuft of grass. And some choose to conceal their nests under shrubs, tall grasses or logs.

Scientific Names

The one thing that all sandpipers have in common is their family name. They are all members of the Scolopacidae family. Within that family are 15 currently named genera, each genus having between one and more than 20 species. Several known species are extinct. Some are vulnerable, threatened, or endangered. The list below includes each currently named genus.


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Calidris

This is the largest genus within the family, with at least two dozen different species, including several named sandpipers, some called stints, knots, the Sanderling, the Surfbird, the Ruff, and the Dunlin. These birds are mostly brown or gray, with small to medium length bills. They breed in the Arctic and migrate long distances, forming mixed flocks on the shore with large numbers of birds.  

Gallinago

The second largest genus within the family includes only snipes. Many of the 18 species currently assigned to this genus live in South America or eastern Asia, but they can be found across much of the world. These medium-sized sandpipers are mostly brown and well-camouflaged with long, narrow bills.

Tringa

This large genus includes the yellowlegs, the greenshanks, the redshanks, the tattlers and a few named sandpipers. As one might guess by their names, several of these species have brightly colored legs. Some of the birds in this genus nest in trees, unlike most other sandpipers.

Numenius

Includes nine species of curlews. These birds have long, thin bills that are curved slightly downward. They are wading birds that use their bills to feed in the mud or soft ground.

Limosa

This genus includes four living species of godwits, along with a few identifies extinct species. These long-billed, long-legged birds often feature ruddy coloration on their underparts.

Arenaria

The two known species in this genus are the Ruddy Turnstone and the Black Turnstone. These short-billed sandpipers breed on the Arctic tundra and change color with the seasons. They fly fast, up to 47 miles per hour, and migrate long distances.

Prosobonia

Includes the Polynesian sandpipers, of which only the endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper of French Polynesia is still alive. This short-billed sandpiper is one of the smallest, reaching lengths of about 6 inches.

Limnodromus

Includes three species called dowitchers. The Long-billed Dowitcher and Short-billed Dowitcher both live primarily in North America. The Long-billed Dowitcher’s range stretches northwest into Siberia, while the Short-billed Dowitcher migrates as far south as Brazil. The Asian Dowitcher, meanwhile, breeds in far northern Asia and migrates as far as Australia.

Scolopax

Includes the woodcocks, medium-sized, stocky sandpipers with short legs and medium bills. Only two species are not endemic to island habitats. The American Woodcock and the Eurasian Woodcock have large ranges and stable populations. Some of the island woodcocks, however, are near threatened or vulnerable.

Coenocorypha

This genus includes the Austral snipes, which are small, brown sandpipers with medium bills and brown eye lines. These birds live on the islands of New Zealand and are under significant pressure from introduced species.

Phalaropus

Includes the phalaropes, three unique species of sandpipers that are drawn to salty lakes and the open sea. These birds practice serial polyandry, with males taking on incubation and care of the chicks much like the Rhea.

Actitis

Includes just two species, the Common Sandpiper, Actitis hypoleucos, of Eurasia and the Spotted Sandpiper, Actitis macularia of North America. The two species are similar in shape but differ in coloration. Both have long legs and medium bills, and prefer to nest near fresh water.

Bartramia

Includes the Upland Sandpiper, Bartramia longicauda, a species that can be found from Alaska to Argentina, but mostly inhabits the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

Lymnocryptes

Includes only the Jack Snipe, Lymnocryptes minimus, the smallest of the snipes. This sandpiper breeds in wetlands and tundra of northern Europe and Asia, and migrates as far south as Sub-Saharan Africa.

Xenus

Includes only the Terek sandpiper, Xenus cinereus. This sleek, gray bird breeds near the water in northern Russia, Belarus, Latvia and Finland. It migrates as far as the shores of southern Africa, Madagascar, New Zealand, and Australia.

Sandpiper Appearance

The general description of a sandpiper might be a small to medium sized bird with long legs and a medium to long bill. It would have a slender neck, a rounded head, and a short tail. It would likely have gray or brown feathers, probably with a lighter underside, and likely with markings to provide camouflage. The legs might be dark or brightly colored.

Birds that migrate the longest: Pectoral Sandpiper
This Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) is a typical representative of the Scolopacidae family

©Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com

The actual description of different sandpiper species varies widely. Colors, sizes, bill lengths and shapes, leg lengths, and other characteristics all depend on the individual species or subspecies.

The smallest, the Least Sandpiper or Calidris minutilla, averages about 5.5 inches in length and weighs around 1 ounce. By comparison, the largest sandpipers are huge. The Eurasian Curlew, Numenius arquata, can weigh up to 3 pounds, and the Far Eastern Curlew, Numenius madagascariensis, reaches weights of 2.5 pounds, a length of up to 26 inches and a 43-inch wingspan. The Far Eastern Curlew’s bill alone can reach 7.9 inches in length, more than two inches longer than the Least Sandpiper.

Sandpiper Behavior

Because the sandpiper family includes so many birds, it is impossible to succinctly describe their behavior. For example, some sandpipers are endemic to small islands and do not migrate at all. Other sandpipers migrate thousands of miles each year. In fact, the world record for the longest non-stop migration reportedly happened in 2022. A Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica, tagged with a GPS tracking chip traveled 8,435 miles from Alaska to Tasmania without stopping.

Sandpipers are generally social, although some species are more solitary. Many of the species in the Scolopacidae family live and migrate together in either large or small flocks. The Semipalmated Sandpiper, Caladris pusilla, migrates in flocks of up to 200,000 individuals from the Arctic to coastal Central and South America. Many sandpipers, particularly during migration, can be found in similarly large, mixed flocks made up of several species. Birds from some species, however, prefer to go it alone, only interacting for reproductive purposes.

Sandpipers can be very aggressive and territorial, depending both on the species and the availability of resources. Both males and females are apt to display territorial behavior if food is scarce. In areas where food is more plentiful, nest sites are likely to be closer together and the birds are less likely to show aggression toward others.

Diet

Sandpipers eat mostly invertebrates, including insects, larvae, spiders, crabs, shrimp, and all sorts of small crustaceans. They also eat small fish, frogs, and pretty much anything else they can catch.

Different sandpiper species have different sized bills with different adaptations. They also employ different methods of feeding, from pecking at the surface to poking their bills deep in the mud, or even scooping their bills through the water to catch prey. Many species of sandpipers can forage in the same area thanks to their different feeding mechanisms.

During migration, sandpipers must eat large quantities of food to support their long journeys. Some of these birds double their weight at feeding grounds in the north before embarking on migrations stretching thousands of miles.

Sandpiper Reproduction

The reproductive habits of members of the sandpiper family vary widely. On one end of the spectrum are species that form monogamous pairs. One the other, there are species that are polygamous, polyandrous, practice serial polyandry, or engage in a variety of other behaviors. One might say that when it comes to sandpiper reproduction, the birds do whatever works best for their situation.

This applies to nesting behavior as well. Most sandpipers nest on the ground, but some nest in trees. Most nest in open places, but others try to hide their nests in foliage or under rocks or logs.

Sandpipers may have multiple clutches each year. The number of eggs per clutch varies, but generally it is around three or four. Sandpiper chicks are precocial, meaning that they are up and walking around almost immediately after they hatch. At least one parent, sometimes the male, watches over and protects the young until they fledge, usually within the first month after hatching. The chicks, however, typically feed themselves by following the parent around and pecking at the ground to catch their own prey.

Predators

Sandpipers can fly, but they spend much of their time on the ground searching for prey. As such, they can make attractive targets for other predators. They are often simultaneously being hunted while they hunt. Birds of prey such as eagles, owls and Peregrine Falcons, and mammalian predators such as foxes, bears, wolves, ermines, wolverines and other weasels prey on sandpipers. Crows, gulls and cats are likely to attack chicks, while smaller birds, mice, rats, and even deer may eat their eggs.

Lifespan

The average lifespan of sandpipers varies depending on the species. Some of the more common species live around 10 years or more in the wild. Aside from threats from predators, changes to habitat are among the biggest issues these birds face. As coastal climates change, the sandpipers that live on the shores face new challenges, especially with regard to their food supply.

Habitat loss along migration routes can cause problems for the sandpipers that migrate long distances. Pollution to waterways is a threat. Another issue, particularly harmful to species that are endemic to small areas, is the introduction of non-native species like rats and cats.

A Taste for Sandpipers

Sandpipers are considered a traditional food of Indigenous people of North America, including the Cree and the Salish. The birds were cooked in a variety of fashions, including roasted, fried and boiled. European settlers also reportedly had a taste for sandpipers and hunted them on the plains. As the birds’ numbers diminished, hunting regulations were put in place. These regulations have helped some species to recover.

Similar Animals

  • Ruddy Turnstone – This migratory sandpiper lives in the Arctic and got its name from the way it turns over stones searching for food.
  • Upland Sandpiper – This sandpiper prefers more grassy areas than the shore, unlike many other species in the same family.
  • Killdeer – Although the Killdeer shares many similarities with smaller sandpipers, it is actually a plover and not a sandpiper.

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About the Author

Tavia discovered she had a gift for teaching when she was 21 years old. Having recently changed her major from engineering to wildlife biology, she was thrilled to take on an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She began her work excited about going into the field and saving endangered species, but soon realized she could make the biggest difference by helping to educate young people about animals, the environment and science in general. Tavia loves all animals, especially the ones that need our help the most. Over the years, she has cared for many pets, including snakes, toads, a tarantula, tree frogs, a salamander, hissing cockroaches, mice, donkeys, calves, horses, and a number of cats and dogs, but dogs are definitely her favorite! She believes that together, we can make our world a better place.

Sandpiper FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What do sandpipers look like?

The general description of a sandpiper might be a small to medium sized bird with long legs and a medium to long bill. It would have a slender neck, a rounded head and a short tail. It would likely have gray or brown feathers, probably with a lighter underside, and likely with markings to provide camouflage. The legs might be dark or brightly colored.

How big are sandpipers?

Sandpipers vary widely in size by species. The smallest, the Least Sandpiper weighs about 1 ounce and is about 5.5 inches long. The largest sandpipers, the Eurasian Curlew and the Far Eastern Curlew, can weigh up to 3 pounds and attain lengths of up to 26 inches, respectively.

How fast do sandpipers fly?

Sandpipers are generally fast flyers. Wilson’s Snipe is one of the fastest, reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.

How many varieties of sandpipers exist?

Nearly 100 species are in the Scolopacidae family of sandpipers. They go by many names, including sandpipers, godwits, snipes, curlews, dowitchers, phalaropes, woodcocks, tattlers, yellowlegs, greenshanks, redshanks, turnstones, the Sanderling, the Surfbird, the Ruff, and the Dunlin.

What makes sandpipers special?

Sandpipers are phenomenal migrating birds. Some species can migrate more than 8,000 miles without stopping!

Where do sandpipers live?

Sandpipers live all over the world, with the exception of Antarctica. With nearly 100 species in the Scolopacidae family, sandpiper species can be found in just about every country, usually near shores or inland water sources.

Do sandpipers migrate?

Many sandpipers migrate, sometimes long distances. Some members of the sandpiper family, including godwits, can fly thousands of miles without stopping. Other sandpipers migrate only short distances, or do not migrate at all. Some are endemic to small islands and spend their whole lives there.

What do sandpipers eat?

Sandpipers eat mostly invertebrates, including insects, larvae, spiders, crabs, shrimp, and all sorts of small crustaceans. They also eat small fish, frogs, and pretty much anything else they can catch.

How many eggs do sandpipers lay?

Most sandpipers lay around 4 eggs per clutch, and may lay multiple clutches per year.

When do sandpipers leave the nest?

Sandpipers are precocial birds. Chicks leave the nest immediately and follow their caregiving parent around. They feed themselves and fledge within the first month after they hatch.

How long do sandpipers live?

The lifespan of sandpipers varies depending on the species, but many live around 10 years in the wild.

Are sandpipers rare?

Several varieties of sandpipers are rare. They are vulnerable, near threatened or endangered. Some have gone extinct in modern history. Many, however, are listed as species of least concern by the IUCN Red List and are not considered rare.

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Sources
  1. NPR - Associated Press, Available here: https://www.npr.org/2022/10/28/1132171095/a-non-stop-flight-from-alaska-to-tasmania-may-be-for-the-birds-and-a-possible-re#:~:text=Guinness%20World%20Records%20lists%20the,from%20Alaska%20to%20New%20Zealand.
  2. PBS - Nature, Available here: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/mesmerizing-sandpipers-hunt-while-being-hunted-dazuyk/27865/
  3. Harriet V. Kuhnlein and Murray M. Humphries, Available here: http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/birds/shorebirds/page.aspx?id=6470

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