Wild Profile: Meet the greater yellowlegs

A greater yellowlegs running through the water By Brian Lasenby/Shutterstock

The greater yellowlegs has—wait for it—yellow legs. Good call, whoever gave this shorebird its common name. In March, the migratory bird begins to come home from winter U.S. digs in brackish wetlands, mudflats, flooded fields, and, ugh, sewage ponds, headed to Canada’s boreal wetlands and damp meadows. Greater yellowlegs parents seem to prefer shallow water and shrubby ponds where they can safely raise their kids. Who wouldn’t? During breeding season, the birds will sometimes fly up to and then perch on trees to watch for predators.

The greater yellowlegs vs the lesser yellowlegs

The greater yellowlegs walks with a high-stepping gait, its limbs flashing. Its cousin species, the lesser yellowlegs looks (no surprise) almost identical. But the greater bird is literally greater—that is, larger—with a longer, thicker bill. Side-by-side, most folks could see the difference, but when each bird is solo, it can be hard for anyone but an experienced birder to ID each yellowlegs.

What does this bird sound like? 

The greater yellowlegs’ screechy alarm call is one reason why birdwatchers don’t love this guy. It tends to scare away other shorebirds, so its nicknames are “tattler” and “yelper.” The most common call is a chirpy, ringing cry: tew tew tew. (It sounds, at least to some people, that the bird is saying its name: “yel-low-legs”). If you want to hear the bird in real life, be prepared to spend some time in boggy areas. When it’s dry, head to muddy reservoirs or lakes; when it’s wet, you can spot them in flooded fields. Adult birds also tend to wade into deeper water compared to other sandpipers—one reason that birders call the greater yellowlegs a “marshpiper.”

Featured Video