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What is a Phalarope?

By Alex Terris
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The name phalarope is used to describe three different species of bird, all of which belong to the Scolopacidae family. Phalarope prefer salt water and spend a lot of time far out at sea, which is unusual for shorebirds. Generally, phalarope hunt in large groups and can be found on salt water lakes as well as seas and oceans. The three species are the Red-necked, Red, and Wilson’s phalarope.

Phalarope are known for their interesting hunting method. In order to get food from the ocean floor, the birds make a whirlpool by swimming in tight circles. This often catches small creatures, which the birds can easily pick out from the center of the pool with their beak.

Sexual roles are reversed in all three species. Unlike most birds, female phalaropes are bigger and more brightly colored than males. This may be because the females protect their territory and attempt to find males to mate with rather than the other way round. Once the chicks have hatched, it is the male rather than the female who cares for them until they are strong enough to find their own food.

A distinguishing feature is the bird’s lobed toes. These have evolved to make swimming easier, allowing the birds to swim strongly for long periods of time. The toes do not stop the birds from walking comfortably on land.

The Red-necked phalarope is found in regions of Europe and North America. It grows to about seven inches (18 cm) in length, and gets its name from the patch of red feathers on the neck. The rest of the bird is a mixture of black and dark grey, although there is a section of white on the front of the neck. The bird is migratory, spending the winter in warm tropical waters.

Found in similar locations to the Red-necked species, Red phalarope also spend most of winter at sea. Females and males are nearly completely brown in color, while chicks are usually a lighter grey. The species usually grows to about 8 inches in length, and has a yellow bill with a black tip.

Wilson’s phalarope are found in North America, and are seldom seen in Europe, although there are some exceptions. Like the other two species, the bird is known to be relatively tame. The bird typically grows to about nine inches (23 cm) in length and migrates during winter to South America.

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