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Lesser Yellowlegs

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About 50 species of shorebird migrate through North America. Of those 50 species, about 36 pass on through, while a few stick around for the summer. They all take advantage of the lakes, wetlands, and the water pooled in farm fields.

Depending on how smooth their journey is, many of the birds arrive from late April to late May. Sandra Johnson is a nongame biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. She describes the state’s appeal for the birds, saying: “These waters are so full of invertebrates and other foods that the birds are able to gorge themselves before moving on.”

Since many of the birds are moving north to breed during the brief Arctic nesting season, it is important they arrive there healthy and ready to breed. As Johnson puts it, “North Dakota is just one little piece in the big habitat puzzle for these birds.”

One of these birds is the lesser yellowlegs, a small marshpiper with dainty, bright yellowlegs and a thin bill. Its breeding grounds are the open meadows and boreal forests of Canada, making North Dakota an ideal resting and feeding spot. They typically lay four eggs and both parents likely supply incubation, which lasts for about 22 to 23 days. Once the young hatch, both parents will tend to them, although females often leave before the chicks can fly. In the meantime, the male defends the chicks until they fly, which is about 18 to 20 days after they hatch.

As is the case with many other shorebird species, the lesser yellowlegs was hunted into steep decline for the fashion trade. The fact that they return to hover over wounded flockmates made them easy targets. They rebounded in the early 20th century, just in time for a young naturalist named Gale Monson to study them, along with countless other shorebirds that pass through North Dakota. Born in 1912 in Munich, North Dakota, Monson always had a love of the natural world. He began recording his observations when he was 14. In 1934, as a young man in his early 20s, he published eight years of research in The Wilson Bulletin. It included an annotated list of 187 important migratory birds. On this date in 1928, Monson observed the earliest fall arrival for the yellowlegs. His report provides a valuable snapshot of migratory birds’ behavior during that time.

Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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