Lesser Yellowlegs: Profile, Diet, Habitat, Breeding, Range


In the tranquil world of avian creatures, the Lesser Yellowlegs stands out as a slender, long-legged companion of marshes and shores. This delightful shorebird earns its moniker from the vibrant yellow hue gracing its elegant legs. Small of head and big on charm, this bird is a lively addition to the avian chorus.

Lesser Yellowlegs Distinguishing Features

Upon initial observation, it’s easy to mistake the Lesser Yellowlegs, scientific name Tringa flavipes for its counterpart, the Greater Yellowlegs. But alas, those yellowish shapes adorning their legs are not mere distractions; they are a defining characteristic of this species. The Lesser Yellowlegs is a picture of grace with its slender frame and strikingly colored legs.

Range and Migration

The Lesser Yellowlegs, an elegant sandpiper with willowy, sunlit legs, finds its breeding haven in the vast expanse of interior Alaska and northern Canada. Their nesting grounds span from central Quebec to the northern reaches of our maps, residing between 51 and 69 degrees north latitude in this fertile domain. Remarkably, they venture even further north than their close kin, the Greater Yellowlegs, sharing their realm.

In times of migration, these intrepid avian travelers embark on epic journeys that encompass the entire North American continent. Along the Atlantic coast, you’ll glimpse their slender forms as far south as New Jersey. Bird accessories on Amazon. Meanwhile, the Pacific coast welcomes them, stretching as far as San Francisco Bay. They also grace the coastal landscapes of the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California with their presence. And as winter spreads its wings, they soar southward, making homes along the coasts of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the picturesque Antilles.

Yet, the grandest congregation of these winter wanderers unfolds in Suriname and along the enchanting Gulf of Mexico. A handful even find refuge in the heartland, embracing inland areas throughout their winter wanderings. As if stitching their story across the tapestry of the Earth, vagabond individuals have been sighted as far afield as Greenland, Iceland, the distant British Isles, the vast expanse of mainland Europe, Africa, the mystical New Zealand, the radiant Australia, eastern Asia, and the paradisiacal Hawaiian Islands.

A Ballet of Feeding

Watch this bird in action, and you’ll witness a ballet of foraging prowess. It’s an active feeder, often seen dashing about with enthusiasm. Its plumage echoes that of the Greater Yellowlegs, adorned in gray on its upper parts, while the lower spectrum is pure white. It’s a beige-gray shorebird, and the bright yellow legs are its trademark. While they share similarities with their Greater cousins, there are notable differences that set them apart.

The Lesser Yellowlegs, in its quest for sustenance, primarily indulges in a diet of invertebrates, with flies and beetles topping the menu. However, this culinary adventure may also include the occasional delicacy of small fish, snails, spiders, crustaceans, worms, and seeds. With their long, slender bills as their trusty utensils, they forage with finesse. They traverse shallow waters or mud, delicately plucking prey from either at or below the surface. Pet accessories on Amazon.

Their foraging techniques showcase versatility, as they alternately employ short jabs or a graceful side-to-side movement of their bill, swiftly capturing any delectable morsels that cross their path. This gastronomic endeavor knows no time constraints, occurring at any hour of the day. While they often engage in this feast within waters merely a few centimeters deep, they may occasionally wade into waters up to their bellies.

Among the notable insect prey featured on their dining list, we find an assortment of midges (Chironomidae), water boatmen (Corixidae), mayflies (Baetidae), and water-scavenging beetles (Hydrophilidae). The competitive spirit runs high during these feasts, sometimes leading to spirited confrontations as individuals vie for their share of the bounty.

Lesser yellowlegs

Frequent Fliers

Lesser Yellowlegs typically embark on short, loosely structured flights. However, during migration, they may gather in impressive numbers, with several thousand congregating at favored foraging spots. It’s a jest among avian circles that these Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs might just be peas in a pod due to their uncanny resemblance.

Taxonomic Tidbits

In the realm of scientific nomenclature, Lesser Yellowlegs goes by the name Tringa flavipes. The genus name, Tringa, is a Latin rendition of the Greek term for a sandpiper, “trungas.” Aristotle’s writings mention this term, describing it as a scroll-shaped, white-crusted bird engaged in wedding-like tail-waving. As for flavipes, it’s derived from the Latin words flavus, meaning “yellow,” and pes, meaning “foot.” These names resonate with the bird’s signature yellow legs.

Size Matters

When it comes to measurements, Lesser Yellowlegs stands as a medium-large shorebird, with a length of about 27 centimeters (11 inches). It boasts vibrant yellow legs that effortlessly catch the eye. In the bill section, it differentiates itself from its larger relatives. Its bill is shorter, roughly the same length as its head, slender, straight, and uniformly dark. Its breast is outstretched, adorned with delicate short bars along the flanks.

Lesser Yellowlegs Communication and Perception

In the world of Lesser Yellowlegs, communication takes many forms, each contributing to the intricate fabric of their lives. The characteristic “tu-tu” call of Lesser Yellowlegs emerges as a welcoming or contact call, echoing through their domains. An “alarm” is sounded with a sharp “kip,” often accompanied by synchronized tail and head movements. When it’s time for courtship, a softer version of “kip” or “cup” emerges in the repertoire, weaving delicate melodies with nestlings.

The males engage in a captivating song, a repeated “pill-e-wee,” announcing their readiness for romance. In their pursuit of love, males perform a flight display, ascending to heights of 10 to 75 meters before gracefully gliding down. This aerial dance is punctuated by spread tail feathers, dangling legs, and an elevated head. Songs and calls flow more frequently during the breeding season, enriching the air with their vibrant presence.

The Lesser Yellowlegs, versatile in their expressions, also employ appeasement and aggression displays, often seen during foraging and courtship encounters. Before the delicate dance of copulation, males initiate a pre-copulatory display, characterized by an engaging chase accompanied by lively chatter. If the female responds favorably, the male elevates his wings above his head and flutters his wingtips, painting the sky with gestures of affection.

Lifespan and Longevity

When it comes to understanding the lifespan of Lesser Yellowlegs in the wild, our knowledge remains rather limited. However, we do have a record of the eldest among them, who ventured through life for an impressive 4 years and 9 months. The journey of survival in the wild carries with it various trials, where predation, disease, unfortunate vehicle collisions, the harsh grip of hypothermia, poisoning, and the looming specter of hunting stand as known causes of mortality.

Lesser Yellowlegs Physical Characteristics

The Lesser Yellowlegs, bathed in the soft hues of nature’s brushstroke, stand as medium-sized sandpipers with an air of grace in every stride. Their elongated, sun-kissed legs reflect their name, a vibrant contrast to the world around them. In a remarkable display of gender equality, males and females mirror each other in both plumage and size. Though if one were to measure wingspans, it’s the ladies who wield longer wings on average.

During the season of breeding, their plumage boasts a mosaic of grey, black, and white, like nature’s artwork. The back of these avian wonders is adorned with a canvas of grey and black mottles, while their belly gleams with pure white. Bird accessories on Amazon. Brown streaks grace a pristine white backdrop, painting their neck and breasts. Their primary feathers, those elegant extensions of flight, unfurl in a striking black. Yet, as winter approaches, their palette mellows, shifting to subdued greys on the upper canvas and white with delicate grey specks beneath. This splendid plumage knows no geographic variation.

Distinguishing them from their close cousins, the Greater Yellowlegs, is a task simplified by their long legs, necks, and bills. What sets them apart is not only their smaller stature but their slender bill, an almost perfect match for the length of their head. In contrast, the Greater Yellowlegs wields a more robust bill, approximately 1.5 times the length of its head, and a slight upturn. The soundtrack of their lives adds another layer of differentiation. Lesser Yellowlegs’ calls resonate as 1 to 3 low notes, typically 2. Meanwhile, their greater counterparts boast 3 to 4 higher, more resonant notes in their vocal repertoire. Black bills serve as their unmistakable signature.

Lesser Yellowlegs Behavior

The Lesser Yellowlegs, driven by the rhythm of the seasons, embark on migrations of splendor. Their northern journey unfolds from February to May, a migration colored by both interior and coastal routes. The interior United States becomes a bustling thoroughfare during spring migration. As autumn casts its golden hues, they pivot towards coastal pathways.

Remarkably, females and those who found their breeding endeavors less fruitful begin their migratory odyssey first, followed by the males, and finally, the juveniles. During these grand journeys, they form small yet diverse flocks, numbering anywhere from a cozy trio to more than 50 companions. These spirited aviators navigate the skies, both by day and night. They also display an adaptable appetite, foraging tirelessly under the sun’s warm embrace and the enigmatic cloak of night.

Within the intricate tapestry of their lives, Lesser Yellowlegs pair up to defend nesting territories during the breeding season. Beyond this season of romance, they typically opt for small flocks, although solitary sojourns in the realms of foraging and roosting aren’t uncommon. Pet accessories on Amazon.

Their graceful gait and languid flight characterize their physical poetry. Though their aerial journeys can propel them at speeds of up to 75 kilometers per hour, their flight is often described as unhurried. In their watery habitats, they tread softly, a picture of elegance whether they walk through shallow waters or go swimming. The art of slumber finds them resting with one leg and their bill nestled within their feathers. Occasionally, they bask in the sun’s gentle warmth, unfurling their wings for a leisurely sunbath. Foraging consumes the bulk of their daily endeavors, a testament to their adaptability and resourcefulness.

Home Range

Lesser Yellowlegs become guardians of both nesting and foraging territories within their winter range. These winter territories, spanning from 0.5 to 1 hectare, serve as their seasonal havens. Determining the precise size of nesting territories remains a challenge due to the cryptic nature of nest locations. Reports indicate their vigilance extending up to 200 meters from a nest, demonstrating their dedication to safeguarding their offspring.

During the breeding season, both male and female mates embark on daily pilgrimages to favored foraging grounds, traveling distances of up to 13 kilometers from their nest. Parental protection extends its benevolent reach, with parents and their young observed venturing up to 3 kilometers from their nest. Their commitment is affirmed through remarkable site fidelity, with up to 65% of these avian wonders returning to the same areas to breed each year.

A European Guest

Beyond their native lands, Lesser Yellowlegs make occasional appearances in Western Europe. Approximately five of these elegant birds make their way to Great Britain each year, with their visits predominantly occurring from August to October, occasionally even leading to nesting attempts.

Grazing in Style

The Lesser Yellowlegs displays its culinary talents in shallow waters, where it gracefully employs its bill, sometimes even stirring the water for its delectable prey. Their diet primarily consists of insects, small fish, and crustaceans, and their calls, compared to their Greater cousins, carry a softer tone.

Lesser Yellowlegs of Lodmoor

Lesser Yellowlegs Habitat and Migration

As for its habitat and migration, Lesser Yellowlegs call the region stretching from Alaska to Quebec their breeding grounds, notably avoiding the boreal forested areas and favoring drier ground locations. Come migration season, they take to the skies, embarking on a journey along the Gulf Coast of the United States, venturing as far south as South America.

In the gentle embrace of boreal forests, Lesser Yellowlegs carefully select their nesting locations. These verdant retreats are often adjacent to shimmering wetlands, forming a harmonious marriage of land and water. Amidst the splendor of these breeding landscapes, they orchestrate a delicate dance, commuting between their nesting grounds and the foraging havens that line the shores of lakes, sloughs, estuaries, and marshes.

Throughout their epic migratory adventures and the winter sojourn, they find refuge in a myriad of wetland habitats. From lowland mudflats to saltwater marshes and tranquil lagoons, these wondrous wanderers make their presence known. And sometimes, they grace flooded agricultural fields with their ephemeral visitations.

Migration and Breeding

The Lesser Yellowlegs embark on remarkable migrations to their breeding territories. These journeys culminate in the formation of pairs as mid-May arrives, heralding the breeding season. With simplicity and elegance, they create nest scrapes, where a clutch of up to 6 eggs is gently laid during June and July. Remarkably, they may craft and evaluate up to 75 nest scrapes before selecting the final site. These chosen locations are characterized by elevation, mossy embrace, dry conditions, and overhanging vegetation, all within a 200-meter radius of water.

The eggs, like earthly treasures, exhibit a range of colors, including buff, gray, brown, or green, adorned with delicate brown specks. Should a nest fail, some Lesser Yellowlegs may attempt a second brood, though it is more common for pairs to raise only one brood each year. The miracle of incubation lasts 22 to 23 days, with eggs hatching in close succession.

Within hours, the young ones venture beyond the nest, their first steps towards independence. Within 22 to 23 days of hatching, they will take to the skies, a testament to their rapid development. While some may attempt to breed in their very first year, most find their wings and voices at the age of two.

Lesser Yellowlegs Reproduction

In the realm of Lesser Yellowlegs, monogamy takes center stage, with seasonal fidelity reigning supreme. Once paired, the bond tends to hold steadfast, with these birds rarely seeking new mates in subsequent years. Courtship takes flight as males grace the skies with mesmerizing flight displays, serenading potential partners with dulcet tones. Yet, the competitive spirit emerges, as males assert dominance while securing nesting territories.

In this dance of courtship, males become guardians of their beloveds, protecting them from the amorous advances of other males. Extra-pair copulations are a rarity in their world, marked by fidelity to the chosen partner. Pet accessories on Amazon.


In the realm of parenting, both partners share the duties of incubation and nurturing the young. From the moment they hatch, these younglings display remarkable precociousness, mastering the art of mobility and self-sufficiency within mere hours. Guided by their vigilant parents, they embark on their maiden foraging expeditions. The parents lead by example, taking flight, gracefully alighting, and then calling out to their fledglings.

This protective embrace continues until the moment of fledging or perhaps a few days more. It’s worth noting that female Lesser Yellowlegs may, on occasion, part ways with their male counterparts after the young are born. Typically, females stand guard over the offspring for around 11 days post-hatching, while males extend their watchful presence to about 26 days.

Lesser Yellowlegs Predation

The circle of life within the avian world unfurls with an array of feathered predators seeking their next meal. Adults and fledglings alike are pursued by an extensive cast of avian adversaries. This includes the likes of peregrine falcons, merlins, long-tailed jaegers, northern harriers, northern goshawks, sharp-shinned hawks, short-eared owls, and the regal gyr falcons. However, terrestrial threats lurk as well, with snapping turtles poised to strike adults during their foraging escapades.

Adults, the vigilant guardians, confront potential egg and nestling predators with tenacity. Their watchful eyes are trained on enemies such as sandhill cranes, peregrine falcons, merlins, northern harriers, bald eagles, mew gulls, herring gulls, short-eared owls, common ravens, black-billed magpies, coyotes, and even domestic cats. The watchful gaze of potential foes extends to encompass creatures of the wild, including mink, martens, and red foxes. These tireless defenders of their nests and young are not averse to joining forces, mounting coordinated mobbing efforts against would-be attackers.

When danger lurks, they employ a repertoire of alert signals, such as the signature head bobbing. In the face of terrestrial threats, they launch into hovering flights while vocally announcing the presence of danger, potentially rallying nearby birds to unite against the intruder. Nurturing parents, resolute in their protective duties, demonstrate a reluctance to flee from their nest until the predator draws within a mere meter’s distance.

Some may boldly dive at their aggressors or initiate distraction displays, ingeniously leading potential threats away from their precious brood. The wily peregrine falcons employ a strategic swooping technique to flush out their quarry from nesting areas, deftly seizing their prey in mid-flight. Meanwhile, vigilant sandhill cranes navigate through marsh grasses in their relentless search for young Lesser Yellowlegs.

Ecosystem Roles

The Lesser Yellowlegs plays its part in the grand tapestry of the ecosystem. They often flock together with various other species of shorebirds, fostering a sense of community. Bird accessories on Amazon. Among their avian companions are Greater Yellowlegs, Hudsonian godwits, American avocets, pectoral sandpipers, dowitchers, stilt sandpipers, white-rumped sandpipers, and semipalmated sandpipers. This collective journey through the avian realm adds a layer of complexity to the ecosystem’s web of life.

Lesser Yellowlegs Conservation Status

Currently, populations of Lesser Yellowlegs are estimated to number up to 800,000 birds, and their presence spans far and wide. Though they have weathered the storms of past widespread hunting, populations may not have fully rebounded to their former glory. Nevertheless, they currently enjoy the status of “least concern” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, it’s essential to note that documented population declines along their migration routes serve as a stark reminder of the fragile balance these avian wonders tread.


In the intricate tapestry of nature, Lesser Yellowlegs is a distinguished character, slender and long-legged, adorning its bright limbs with poise. With its shorter, straighter bill and delicate features, it effortlessly enchants bird enthusiasts from the Alaskan wilderness to Quebec’s plains.

Useful Reading

  • https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Tringa_flavipes/

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