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What is a Willet?

By Greer Hed
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A willet is a shorebird and a member of the sandpiper family. It receives its name from its loud, resounding call, which sounds vaguely similar to the spoken syllables "pill-will-willet." The indigenous habitat of the willet is located in the northern United States and extends into southern Canada. Willets prefer to live near water, and are usually found in colonies around coastal beaches, as well as inland lakes and marshes. These birds were once threatened by heavy hunting in certain regions of North America, but most species appear to be bouncing back from their former decline.

An adult willet has gray legs and gray plumage on the top of its body. Its breast and belly are white or lighter gray. This drab coloration helps to camouflage the bird in its preferred habitat. On the underside of the willet's wings, the plumage is more striking, with pronounced stripes of alternating white and black. This plumage is only visible when the bird is in flight. Juveniles look very similar to their elders, except that their feathers are more brown than gray.

Willets mate for life, and usually their breeding season is in the late winter or early spring. The birds generally gather in colonies so that the females can nest in the early spring. Females choose secluded locations for their nests, which are typically found in clumps of grass or small hollows in the ground that the female birds fill with grasses, weeds, and shells. Once the eggs have been laid, the male and female take turns incubating them for about three weeks, at which point the eggs hatch. Willet chicks are fully mobile and able to obtain food for themselves not long after being born, and reach complete maturity after about a month's time.

The willet's diet consists mainly of marine insects and worms, small fish, and crabs. Occasionally, the birds also dine on vegetable matter, such as grasses or seeds. The birds usually obtain their prey by plucking it off of the surface of shallow water, or by using their long, tapered bills to root out insects or other animals living beneath wet sand or mud.

Willets prefer to live in large groups or colonies. Birds will go off independently to search for food, only to regroup afterward. Their distinctive "pill-will-willet" cry is often sounded as an alarm when the birds are distressed. They are intensely protective of their territory, becoming very aggressive toward other birds that encroach on their feeding or nesting grounds.

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