Shorebirds are a diverse avian group consisting of four families: plovers, avocets and stilts, oystercatchers, and sandpipers. Most North American shorebirds migrate over incredible distances from the arctic, where they breed, to coastal and interior wetland areas in South America, where they winter. Shorebirds need to eat up to one-third their body weight a day. Some can store fat reserves of up to 30 percent of their body’s weight in preparation for migration. Most shorebirds are closely associated with wetland areas where they feed on various shoreline habitats, mudflats, and marshes, in both fresh and saltwater environments.
Shorebirds have an amazing variety of bill shapes and sizes allowing them to feed in various habitats from dry soil to shallow water. Differences in bill length and shape and in leg length allow various species to flock together for protection without seriously competing with each other for food. These differences allow each species to find food at a different depth or location in the substrate. Some pick prey off the surface of the ground; others probe various depths underground, while others prey on aquatic creatures in the water and others on the surface of the water. Some feed at tideline, while others follow the waterline, and others feed in shallow water.
Plovers feed by picking, and have large eyes by which they locate their food. They feed above the waterline on wet to dry ground. Plovers are also known to use a technique called “foot patting” where the bird patters its feet on loose sand or mud, causing its prey to come to the surface. A well-known plover species in North America is the Killdeer, which is commonly found in pastures and farmland.
Oystercatchers have a long, triangular bill that is a cross between a knife and a chisel. They use it to stab into open bivalves, such as mussels and clams, severing the muscles that close the shell, or they smash open the shell if it is closed.
Avocets and Stilts have long legs and can feed in deeper water than most other shorebirds. Avocets have long, thin, upcurved bills, which they use as a scythe, sweeping it back and forth in the water stirring the bottom, and snatching up insects and crustaceans thus exposed.
The Sandpiper family constitutes the largest group of shorebirds. Body size, leg length, and bill size and shape are highly variable from one species to another. Sandpipers vary in size from the tiny 6-inch Least Sandpiper, which probes shallowly with its short bill, to the 23-inch Long-billed Curlew, which uses its long, decurved, forceps-like bill to probe deep into the burrows of marine worms. Two very odd members of this family are the Turnstones and Phalaropes. The Turnstones use their short upturned bills to flip over rocks and debris in search of food. Phalaropes gather their food in an ingenious way. They spin in circles on the surface of the water creating a whirlpool beneath them, which sucks up bottom dwelling insect larvae to the surface, where the Phalarope pick them off with their needle-like beaks.
Just as the Creator has given shorebirds a diversity of bill shapes and sizes and leg lengths, to allow them to exploit a variety of habitats and food sources, so He has provided mankind with a diversity of talents for use in His work. “To every person is committed some peculiar gift or talent which is to be used to advance the Redeemer’s kingdom.” Testimonies, vol. 4, 618. “In the Lord’s plan there is a diversity in the distribution of talents. . . . These talents are not bestowed capriciously, but according to the ability of the recipient.” Counsels on Stewardship, 116. “We must be always on the watch for opportunities to use for God the talents He has given us.” Testimonies, vol. 8, 27.
David Arbour writes from DeQueen, Arkansas.