Short-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus)
|French:||Limnodrome à bec court|
|Size||Length: 25 - 29 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 45 - 51 cm (2)
|Weight||65 - 154 g (2)|
- The bill of the short-billed dowitcher is twice as long as the head.
- Although both sexes of short-billed dowitcher incubate the eggs, only the male cares for the hatchlings.
- Once hatched, young short-billed dowitchers are able to walk immediately and can swim as soon as their down has dried.
- Young short-billed dowitchers are able to feed themselves instantly after hatching, taking insects from nearby vegetation.
The short-billed dowitcher is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The short-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) is a medium-sized shorebird and, despite its common name, has a relatively long bill (3) (4), which is around twice the length of its head (3) (4) and is black with a green or olive base (4).
The three different subspecies of short-billed dowitcher vary in their plumage colouration and patterning, and during the breeding season the nominate subspecies Limnodromus griseus griseus has pale orange underparts (4), a white belly, and a dense spotted pattern across the chest (4) (5), while the upperparts are dark (4). Limnodromus griseus carinus is the largest race and is similar in appearance to the nominate subspecies, although it has slightly less spotting on the breast and paler orange underparts (4). Limnodromus griseus hendersoni has rusty-coloured underparts, less spotting on the breast, and the upperside is brighter (4) (5) due to the pale margins on the feathers (4). The lower back and rump are white in all subspecies (4) and the tail is barred black and white (4) (6). The long legs (3) of the short-billed dowitcher are yellowish (4) (6) and the eyes are dark brown (4).
During the winter, the plumage of the short-billed dowitcher becomes brown-grey above and white below, while the chest is grey (5).
The female short-billed dowitcher is similar in appearance to the male, although it is generally slightly larger (2) (4). The juvenile of this species has dark feathers on the upperparts, which have wide buff edges, giving a slightly scaled appearance (3). The chest and sides of the body are buff and there is much less spotting and barring than in the adult (3). The head and breast have a slightly orange wash and may be patterned with spots (6).
The call of the short-billed dowitcher is a mellow ‘tu-tu-tu’ (2) (5).
The North American breeding range of the short-billed dowitcher is split into three areas and there are separate breeding colonies in southern Alaska and in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as in north-western Quebec and north-eastern Ontario (7). In winter, the short-billed dowitcher migrates south to the Pacific coast between California and Peru, and from North Carolina to northern Brazil on the Atlantic coast (2) (4). Very large aggregations of this species are found in Suriname during the winter (2).
There are also vagrant populations of the short-billed dowitcher in Australia, Belgium, Bermuda, Chile, Germany, Ghana, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom (4) (7).
The short-billed dowitcher mostly breeds in taiga and subarctic tundra (2) (3) (4), where there is low vegetation cover (2) and acidic soil (2) (4). While migrating, this species is found around saltwater tidal flats, beaches and salt marshes (3) (4). The preferred overwintering areas of the short-billed dowitcher are brackish lagoons, coastal mudflats (2) (3) (4) and mangroves (2) (4).
The diet of the short-billed dowitcher is variable depending on the season, with fly larvae and pupae mostly being eaten during the breeding season, as well as snails, beetles, insects and occasionally seeds (2) (3) (4). During the winter, aquatic worms, molluscs and crustaceans are taken (2) (4). When foraging around aquatic habitats, the short-billed dowitcher rapidly probes its bill into the substrate to obtain its prey (2) (3) (4).
The nesting period of the short-billed dowitcher usually runs between late May and July (2), and the male and female form a monogamous pair (2) which lasts for one breeding season (4). The nest is well hidden on the ground in long grass (2) and is usually bowl shaped, with an outer layer of thick vegetation lined with dried grass, leaves, ptarmigan feathers (Lagopus species) and twigs (3) (4). On average, a short-billed dowitcher clutch contains four eggs (2) (3), although clutches of between three and five eggs have been reported (2).
The eggs of the short-billed dowitcher are light green-brown or olive-green, and have brown spots across the surface, which are more concentrated at the largest end of the egg (3) (4). The eggs are incubated by both sexes (2) (3) for between 19 and 21 days (2) and the young are able to walk immediately and can swim as soon as their down has dried (3). When all of the eggs have hatched, the young leave the nest and are mostly cared for by the male (2) (3), although they are able to feed themselves by gleaning insects from vegetation (4). After between 16 and 17 days, the young are able to fly short distances. The short-billed dowitcher produces one brood per breeding season (4).
The female short-billed dowitcher leaves the breeding grounds to begin its southward migration from early July and the male and juveniles usually leave in late July. Between mid-August and early October, individuals begin to arrive in their southern wintering grounds, with northward migration starting again in early March (2). During migration, short-billed dowitchers form large flocks which may contain hundreds of individuals (4).
The habitat of the short-billed dowitcher is under threat due to global warming, which is shrinking and drying out the wetlands in the eastern part of its breeding range. Habitat loss is also threatening this species as a large amount of suitable areas have been removed or degraded from sedimentation and agricultural pollution (8).
There are not currently known to be any specific conservation measures in place for the short-billed dowitcher, although recommendations have been made for the future conservation of this species, which include research, an education programme and protection of its breeding and wintering grounds as well as any migratory stopover points (8).
Find out more about the short-billed dowitcher:
BirdLife International - Short-billed dowitcher:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology - Short-billed dowitcher:
More information on bird conservation in North America:
American Bird Conservancy (ABC):
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:
- Brackish: slightly salty water, usually a mixture of salt and freshwater, such as that found in estuaries.
- Crustaceans: diverse group of animals with jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton, characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, woodlice and barnacles.
- Gleaning: the catching of prey by plucking it from or within foliage.
- Incubate: to keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Larva: immature stage in an animal’s lifecycle, after it hatches from an egg and before it changes into the adult form. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but are usually unable to reproduce.
- Molluscs: a diverse group of invertebrates, mainly marine, that have one or all of the following: a horny, toothed ribbon in the mouth (the radula), a shell covering the upper surface of the body, and a mantle or mantle cavity with a type of gill. Includes snails, slugs, shellfish, octopuses and squid.
- Monogamous: having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- Nominate subspecies: when a species is divided into subspecies, the originally described population is classified as the nominate subspecies. Indicated by the repetition of the species name; for example, Cyclura nubila nubila is the nominate subspecies of the Cayman Islands ground iguana, Cyclura nubila.
- Pupal stage: in some insects, a stage in the life cycle during which the larval form is reorganised into the adult form. The pupa is usually inactive, and may be encased in a chrysalis, cocoon or other protective coating.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Taiga: the sub-Arctic forest of the high northern latitudes that surrounds the pole and is mainly composed of coniferous trees.
- Tundra: treeless, grassy plains characteristic of Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. They are very cold and have little rainfall.
- Vagrant: an individual found outside the normal range of the species.
IUCN Red List (February, 2014)
del Hoyo, J., Van Gils, J. and Wiersma, P. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
All About Birds - Short-billed dowitcher (February, 2014)
Jehl, J.R., Kilma, J. and Harris, R.E. (2001) Short-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
- Dunn, J.L. and Alderfer, J. (Eds.) (2006) Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
United States Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Centre - Short-billed dowitcher (February, 2014)
BirdLife International - Short-billed dowitcher (February, 2014)
- Wells, J.V. (2007) Birders Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.