Red phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius)

Also known as: gray phalarope, grey (red) phalarope, grey phalarope
Synonyms: Phalaropus fulicaria
French: Phalarope à bec large
GenusPhalaropus (1)
SizeLength: 21 cm (2)
Wingspan: 42 cm (2)
Male weight: 50 g (2)
Female weight: 63 g (2)

The red phalarope is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The red phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) is an unusual wading bird, not just because it spends up to 11 months of the year far out at sea, but also because the female is larger than the male and displays more flamboyant colouration during the breeding season. During this time the female has large white cheek patches, a black crown that extends past the black-tipped, yellow bill, and a chestnut red neck and chestnut underparts. The wing uppersides are black, although the buff edges of each feather give a streaked appearance, and the legs are pale blue. The male plumage, although similar, is less vibrantly coloured, tends to be more variable in colour and, unlike the female, has a mottled crown (3) (4).

At other times of the year, both the male and female red phalarope have a black bill, a black stripe that extends from the eye to the back of the neck, a white head and neck, and largely white underparts. The upperparts are pale grey, with slightly darker wings, the lower back and tail are dark grey with dashes of white, and the legs are grey (3) (4). Both the male and female red phalarope have lobed toes and a fairly stout, medium length bill (3).

A migratory species, the red phalarope breeds in the Arctic regions of North America, Europe and Asia and typically winters at lower latitudes, off of western South America and south-western Africa (1) (5).

During the winter, the red phalarope is found out at sea in areas where prey items are concentrated. When breeding, the red phalarope nests on poorly drained soils near shallow pools, preferring hummocky tundra that is covered in sedge (Carex species.) (1) (3) (5).

For most of the year whilst out in open ocean, the red phalarope feeds on plankton and small fish found at the surface. When foraging for small food items in deep water, the red phalarope swims rapidly in a circle to create a whirlpool that drags prey from the depths to the surface. When the red phalarope comes towards land during the breeding season, it forages around shallow water, consuming plants and invertebrates, such as insects, molluscs and crustaceans (1) (2) (5).

Unusually for a bird, it is the female red phalarope that fight for a male, with mate choice ultimately lying with the male. After pairing, the male and female dig a nest scrape and line it with a variety of materials, including grass, stones, feathers and lichen. After three eggs are laid, the female abandons the male to search for another mate, leaving the male to incubate the eggs alone. Occasionally, however, the female may return to lay one more egg. After a 17 to 26 day incubation period, the male continues solo parenthood by caring for the hatchlings. At hatching, the chicks are well camouflaged against the sedge grass found throughout the breeding habitat and are well developed, soon being able to walk, run, swim and find food (3).

While the global population of the red phalarope appears to be decreasing, it does not appear be declining at such a rate to immediately threaten this species with extinction. There are no known major threats to the species, but human disturbance can result in breeding birds abandoning their nest, leaving the chicks vulnerable to predation and exposure. The red phalarope’s breeding habitat has also been degraded in parts of its range by grazing from introduced reindeer and oil exploration in northern Alaska (3).

The red phalarope is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (6), and is also protected under the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), which calls upon countries to undertake conservation actions for bird species that depend on wetland habitats for at least part of their annual cycle (7).

For more information on the red phalarope and other bird species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2010)
  2. BTO BirdGuide – Red phalarope (December, 2010)
  3. Tracy, D.M., Schamel, D. and Dale, J. (2002) Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  4. Howell, S.N.G. and Webb, S. (2005) A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
  5. BirdLife International (December, 2010)
  6. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (December, 2010)
  7. Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (December, 2010)