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What is a Dunlin?

A Dunlin is a charming, small wader bird, known for its distinctive migratory patterns and endearing, curved bill. Adaptable yet vulnerable, Dunlins grace coastal mudflats, their synchronized flights a ballet over the water. As they navigate the challenges of habitat loss, each wingbeat tells a story of resilience. How do Dunlins mirror our own environmental journeys? Join us to explore.
Anna Harrison
Anna Harrison

A dunlin is a medium sized wading bird in the sandpiper family known as Erolia or Calidris alpina. It is the size of a starling and is identified by a black patch on its underside and thin black legs. This bird also has a unique, narrow dark bill that curves down at the tip. Its body is speckled with reddish or brown spots during the warmer months, but turns to gray in the winter.

These types of birds, sometimes called stints, are native to parts of North America, Asia, Europe and Africa and are found throughout most of the world. They are migratory in nature, leaving their summer homes very late in the fall to winter in warmer southern climates. Dunlins travel in large flocks which are of interest to bird watchers who enjoy the antics of these birds as they turn and swoop in unison. These maneuvers are often employed to confuse and deter the Peregrine Falcons and Merlins that prey on dunlins.

Peregrine falcons prey on dunlin.
Peregrine falcons prey on dunlin.

Dunlins search beaches and coastlines for insects and larvae to eat and also feed on aquatic animals such as mollusks and crustaceans. They will eat different types of seeds and leaves as well, but they are not a part of their everyday diet. They can look comical as they bob up and down, digging their bills into the sand and mud in search of food.

The male dunlin is the first to appear at the breeding area and attracts a female by making the beginnings of several nests. These are built on the ground, in hidden areas of wet tundra, out of willow leaves and grass. The female chooses one nest, which they finish building together, and lays anywhere from two to six eggs. The male helps to incubate the eggs for the three weeks it takes for them to hatch.

Dunlins, who fly to warmer climate during the winter months, forage for food along coastlines.
Dunlins, who fly to warmer climate during the winter months, forage for food along coastlines.

Baby dunlins leave the nest when they are just a few weeks old to forage for their own food. The female abandons the hatchlings after two or three days, leaving the male to provide food and protection until the babies leave the nest. When the babies have left, the male abandons the nest as well, but dunlins will usually return to the same area year after year to make new nests.

While these birds are extremely common throughout the world, they appear to be declining in some areas. This is thought to be due to the destruction of certain habitats rather than a decrease in the bird population. As these areas are developed, the dunlin and other sandpipers are forced to find new nesting grounds, feeding areas, and winter homes. Oil spills, pollution, and damage from hurricanes and other severe storms all have a negative impact on the dunlin population.

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    • Peregrine falcons prey on dunlin.
      By: falconhy
      Peregrine falcons prey on dunlin.
    • Dunlins, who fly to warmer climate during the winter months, forage for food along coastlines.
      By: Pix by Marti
      Dunlins, who fly to warmer climate during the winter months, forage for food along coastlines.