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10 Fascinating Facts About the Black Turnstone

The Black Turnstone is a remarkable bird that is known for its striking appearance and fascinating behaviors. This small wading bird is found along the Pacific coast of North America, from Alaska down to Baja California.

In this article, we will delve deeper into the identification and plumages of this interesting bird species.


Field Identification

Black Turnstones are easily identifiable by their black head and breast, white belly, and striking orange legs. They have a thick, sturdy beak that is curved downwards, which is essential for foraging for food.

These birds are small in size, roughly 22 cm in length, and weigh around 120 grams.

Similar Species

The Black Turnstone can be quite similar in appearance to the Ruddy Turnstone at first glance. However, the Ruddy Turnstone has rusty and white feathers, whereas the Black Turnstone has black and white feathers.

The Surfbird is another bird that may be confused with the Black Turnstone. However, the Surfbird has a longer bill that is straight, and it lacks the striking orange legs of the Black Turnstone.


The Black Turnstone has two color morphs, a dark morph and a light morph. The dark morph has a blackish-brown plumage with white mottled underparts, while the light morph features a grayish-brown plumage with a white belly and throat.

These birds undergo a complete molt twice a year, once during the breeding season and once during the non-breeding season.


During the breeding season, Black Turnstones moult into their breeding plumage. This process is triggered by increasing daylight hours, hormonal changes, and food availability.

The breeding plumage is characterized by darker colors, which help birds blend in with their surroundings and attract mates. During the non-breeding season, Black Turnstones pass through a basic plumage phase.

It is during this time that they may undergo a complete renewal of their feathers, which is necessary to maintain their flight capabilities.


The Black Turnstone is an incredible bird that is a marvel to watch. Its distinct appearance, interesting behaviors, and remarkable plumage make it a favorite among birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

Understanding the identification and plumages of Black Turnstones can help us appreciate these birds and their fascinating lives even more.

Systematics History

The Black Turnstone, also known as Arenaria melanocephala, is a fascinating bird with a rich systematics history. As with many bird species, it has undergone a number of changes and updates in classification over time.

Here, we will explore the geographic variation, subspecies, and related species of the Black Turnstone.

Geographic Variation

The Black Turnstone is found along the Pacific coast of North America, from Alaska all the way down to Baja California. However, within this range, there has been some variation in the physical characteristics of the birds.

In general, Black Turnstones found in the northern part of their range tend to be larger in size with longer bills. The birds found in the southern part of their range, on the other hand, tend to be smaller with shorter bills.

Additionally, there is some variation in coloration between Black Turnstones in different regions.


There are currently two recognized subspecies of the Black Turnstone: the Western Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala melanocephala) and the Eastern Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala nigrescens). The Western Black Turnstone can be found along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to Washington.

The Eastern Black Turnstone, on the other hand, is found along the coasts of California and Mexico.

Some experts argue that there may be a third subspecies of Black Turnstone found in Japan and other parts of Asia.

However, this is still a matter of debate. The physical characteristics and plumage of these birds closely resemble those of the Western Black Turnstone.

Related Species

The Black Turnstone is part of the Scolopaciade family, which includes sandpipers, phalaropes, and snipes. It is closely related to other turnstone species, including the Ruddy Turnstone and the Black-necked Stilt.

In fact, the Ruddy Turnstone and Black Turnstone were once considered to be the same species before being recognized as separate species in the mid-19th century. The Black Turnstone’s closest relative is the Surfbird, which is also found along the Pacific coast.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The historical distribution of the Black Turnstone has undergone some changes over time, particularly due to habitat loss and human development. For example, the Wetlands International database reports that the Black Turnstone was once abundant in San Francisco Bay, but now only a few birds are seen there each year.

Similarly, the population of Black Turnstones in southern California has declined due to habitat loss and disturbance from human activity.

Despite these challenges, there have also been some positive changes in the bird’s distribution.

In recent years, there have been reports of Black Turnstones in areas where they were previously not known to occur, such as in the Gulf of California. These sightings are thought to be due to a shift in the bird’s range, which may be linked to changes in ocean temperatures and currents.


The Black Turnstone is a unique and fascinating bird that has undergone changes in distribution and classification over time. Understanding its systematics history, including its geographic variation, subspecies, and related species, can help us appreciate this bird species even more.

As we continue to monitor changes in the Black Turnstone’s population and distribution, we can work towards protecting the habitats and environments that these birds depend on.


The Black Turnstone is a wading bird that can be found along the rocky shorelines of the Pacific coast. These birds prefer to live in areas with rocky shores, tidal pools, and rocky beaches.

While they are not particularly picky about the type of rock or substrate, they do require some exposed rocky areas for foraging. Some other things that the Black Turnstone looks for in its habitat include access to sand or mudflats for feeding, shallow water to wade in, and low shrubs or other vegetation for nesting.

Movements and Migration

Black Turnstones are primarily non-migratory birds, meaning that they do not migrate long distances to breed or feed. However, they do undergo small-scale movements throughout the year to search for food, mate, and breed.

During the winter months, these birds can be found along the coast from California to Mexico, where they feed on a variety of invertebrates near the shore. In the summer months, Black Turnstones move north to breed in Alaska and British Columbia.

There is evidence to suggest that some Black Turnstones may also move slightly inland during the non-breeding season to search for food. In one study, radio-tagged Black Turnstones were found to use both coastal and estuarine habitats during the winter months, indicating their flexibility in search of food.

During the breeding season, Black Turnstones become more territorial and are known to defend their nesting sites. In general, this species prefers areas that are less disturbed by human activity during the breeding season to minimize the chances of nest loss.

Interestingly, there have been some reports of Black Turnstones moving beyond their typical range during the non-breeding season. In recent years, there have been sightings of Black Turnstones along the Atlantic coast as far north as Labrador.

These sightings are believed to be due to a shift in the bird’s range, perhaps in response to changes in ocean temperatures and currents.

Conservation and Management

The Black Turnstone is currently not considered to be a species of conservation concern, and it is not listed under the Endangered Species Act. However, the bird does face some threats to its habitat and population.

Human activity, particularly development and disturbance of coastal habitats, is one of the primary threats to the Black Turnstone. This bird species is also at risk from oil spills, which can have devastating effects on the coastlines that they rely on for food and habitat.

To address these threats, a number of conservation efforts are being undertaken for the Black Turnstone. One such effort is the protection of intertidal and rocky shoreline habitats through the establishment of marine protected areas.

These areas may help to minimize disturbance from human activity, and may also reduce the risk of oil spills and other hazards to the Black Turnstone population. Conservationists are also working to monitor the Black Turnstone population and distribution, particularly in areas where the species faces the greatest risks.

By understanding the patterns and behaviors of these birds, we can continue to work towards protecting these important coastal habitats for the Black Turnstone and other species that rely on them.


The Black Turnstone is a fascinating bird species that relies on rocky coastlines and other habitats along the Pacific coast for its survival. Although these birds do not undertake long migrations, they do move around throughout the year to search for food and breeding sites.

Human activity and other threats to these habitats pose a risk to the Black Turnstone population, but conservation efforts and monitoring may help to protect this interesting species for future generations.

Diet and Foraging


Black Turnstones are adept foragers that use their sturdy, curved bills to pry and probe for food. These birds are mainly shorebirds and feed along the rocky shores and tidal pools along the Pacific coast.

Black Turnstones feed on a range of invertebrates, including crabs, barnacles, mollusks, and shrimp. They use their sharp bills to chip off and break open the shells of their prey to access their meat.

Black Turnstones are often seen vigorously probing the rocky substrates or running along the edges of the surf in search of prey. They may also feed in shallow water by wading in and searching for food.

In some instances, these birds have been seen using their bills to flip over small pebbles and rocks to uncover prey.


The Black Turnstone, like many shoreline birds, has a primarily carnivorous diet. However, these birds may also eat some plant material, such as algae or seaweed.

In one study, Black Turnstones were observed to feed on limpets, barnacles, and talitrids, which are small crustaceans commonly known as sandhoppers. The diet of Black Turnstones may vary by location and season, depending on the availability of food sources.

In some instances, these birds may switch their feeding strategy from prying and probing to more active hunting if prey is scarce.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Black Turnstones, like all birds, have high metabolic rates and require a constant intake of energy to maintain their body temperature. In order to regulate their body temperature, these birds have evolved a number of physiological adaptations.

One such adaptation includes the ability to fluff up their feathers to trap air and create a layer of insulation that keeps them warm in cold environments. Additionally, Black Turnstones may move their legs to adjust their position in relation to the sun or wind in order to stay warm or cool.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


Black Turnstones are not known for having a particularly elaborate vocal repertoire. However, they do use a variety of vocalizations to communicate with one another, including calls and alarm notes.

The calls of the Black Turnstone are usually soft and monotone, consisting of simple whistles or warbbles. These birds may also use a harsh, grating alarm call when threatened or disturbed.

During the breeding season, Black Turnstones may engage in courtship displays that involve visual and auditory cues. These displays may include bowing, raising the head, or engaging in short flights.

While displaying, the birds may emit soft vocalizations or even trill their wings to create a whistling sound. Overall, while the vocalizations of Black Turnstones may not be particularly complex, they do play an important role in the communication and social behavior of these fascinating birds.



Black Turnstones are highly mobile birds that move with surprising agility along rocky shores and tidal pools. They are able to run quickly along the rocky substrates and may swim short distances across shallow waters to access feeding locations.

Additionally, these birds are able to take off directly from the surface of the water using their strong wing beats.

Self Maintenance

Like many birds, Black Turnstones engage in self-maintenance behaviors to keep their feathers and bodies in good condition. These behaviors include preening, dust bathing, and sunning.

Preening is an important behavior that involves the bird using its beak to distribute oil from a gland near the base of the tail throughout its feathers, which helps to maintain the feathers’ insulating and waterproof properties. Dust bathing is another important behavior that helps birds to keep their feathers clean and healthy.

During dust bathing, a bird will roll around in a depression or patch of loose soil to dislodge any dirt or debris from its feathers.

Agonistic Behavior

Black Turnstones also exhibit a range of agonistic behaviors, particularly during the breeding season and when defending nests or territories. These behaviors may include aggressive posturing, tail fanning, bill snapping, and charging.

These displays are often seen as a way for birds to communicate their dominance or readiness for mating.

Sexual Behavior

During the breeding season, male Black Turnstones engage in courtship displays to attract a mate. Courtship displays may involve vocalizations, visual cues such as raising their head feathers, or performing short flights.

Once a mate is selected, the males will often defend their nesting territories through displays of aggression towards other males or perceived threats.


Black Turnstones form monogamous pairs during the breeding season, which typically begins in late May or early June. Nest sites are chosen in shallow depressions on rocky substrate or in the sand near the shore.

Both the male and female Black Turnstones take turns incubating the eggs, and they will work together to defend the nest from predators and other threats. Black Turnstones typically lay between two and four eggs per clutch.

The eggs are oval-shaped and have a light brown or olive-green color with dark brown markings. Incubation lasts for approximately 22 to 27 days, after which the chicks are born.

Both parents take part in feeding and caring for the chicks, which are precocial and able to move around and feed themselves shortly after hatching.

Demography and Populations

Black Turnstones are not considered to be a species of conservation concern, with populations currently estimated to be stable. However, this bird species does face some threats to its population, particularly from habitat loss and human activity along the Pacific coast.

Climate change may also pose a threat to Black Turnstone populations in the future, as changes in ocean temperatures and currents may affect their breeding and feeding patterns. Conservation efforts for the Black Turnstone focus on protecting their habitats, particularly through the establishment of marine protected areas and other measures to minimize human disturbance.

In order to monitor the population and distribution of Black Turnstones, researchers use methods such as surveys, banding, and radio telemetry to track the movements and behavior of these fascinating birds. In summary, the Black Turnstone is a unique and fascinating bird that is known for its striking appearance, interesting behaviors, and remarkable plumage.

With a systematics history, a diverse diet, and a range of vocalizations, these birds are a marvel to watch. Understanding the Black Turnstone’s habitat, movements, feeding patterns, and breeding behaviors can help us appreciate the complexities of this bird species.

As conservation efforts continue, it is important to monitor population trends and work towards protecting the habitats and environments that these birds depend on. By learning more about this remarkable species of birds, we can work towards protecting and preserving their populations for future generations.

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