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Discover the Beauty and Secrets of the Black-necked Stilt: From Adaptability to Migration

The Black-necked Stilt, scientifically known as Himantopus mexicanus, is a striking bird species that belongs to the family of Recurvirostridae. Its long, slender legs and elegant plumage make it a distinctive sight in wetlands and marshes across North and South America.


Field Identification:

The Black-necked Stilt is easy to spot in the field due to its unmistakeable physical features. It has a dramatically long black and white legs that are disproportionately longer than its body.

Its body is black and white, with black on the head, neck, back, and wings, and white on the belly and rump. It has a long, thin, black bill that is slightly curved upwards, and red eyes.

Similar Species:

While the Black-necked Stilt is generally easy to recognize, it can be confused with other Himalayan birds, such as the American Avocet, Killdeer, and Common Snipe. However, the Stilt’s long, slender legs, its thin, slightly curved black bill, and its distinctive black and white plumage sets it apart from its relatives.


The Black-necked Stilt undergoes two plumage molts in a year; one is partial, and the other is complete. The partial molt, which occurs in the summer, results in the species acquiring alternate plumage.

The complete molt, which occurs in winter, will result in the species having basic plumage. Alternate Plumage:

In alternate plumage, the Black-necked Stilt’s black head and neck become more iridescent, and the white throat and underparts are cleaner and whiter.

Basic Plumage:

During basic plumage, the Stilt loses most of the black feathering on its head. This pattern change from summer to winter plumage helps the Stilt camouflage with the white salt pans and mudflats against which it typically forages during winter.


The Black-necked Stilt is undoubtedly one of the most striking birds in North and South America. Its long, slender legs, and distinctive black and white plumage make it a favorite of birders and nature enthusiasts alike.

With its wide range and adaptability to different environments, this species is luckily not currently threatened or endangered, although habitat degradation and loss remain an ongoing concern throughout its native range. Systematics History:

The Black-necked Stilt has had a complicated taxonomic history.

Originally described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 as the plumed or pied avocet, the species was later moved to the genus Himantopus in the early 19th century. Since then, it has undergone many changes in classification due to various sub-species being recognized.

Today the Black-necked Stilt is recognized as a bird species in the family of Recurvirostridae. Geographic Variation:

Geographic variation in morphology and vocalizations exists across the Black-necked Stilt’s broad range, which stretches from the southwestern United States to Central and South America.

Individuals residing in the driest areas, like the southwestern U.S. or the Andes, have developed longer bills to forage for food in the shallow water more efficiently. Subspecies:

Currently, six distinct subspecies of Black-necked Stilt are recognized:


m. mexicanus, Mosquito Creek, California, and the Caribbean islands


m. melanurus, Pacific Coast of Central America from southern Mexico to Costa Rica, as well as the Galapagos Islands


m. knudseni, the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Venezuela extending to the Guyanas


m. nomius, northeastern South America from the mouth of the Amazon River to Bahia, Brazil


m. bogotensis, the high Andes from northern Venezuela to Peru


m. chiricoteri, found in the northwestern region of the United States, including the Great Basin, as well as in Mexico.

Related species:

The Black-necked Stilt belongs to the family Recurvirostridae, which are wading birds traditionally classified in the order Charadriiformes. Some of its closest relatives are other long-legged wading bird species like avocets, stilts, and phalaropes.

Historical Changes to Distribution:

Historically, the Black-necked Stilt was commonly found in most wetland habitats throughout its range. However, with the advent of humans, much of the wetland habitats were lost to agricultural or industrial development in many parts of the Americas.

Consequently, populations of this species have been reduced or wiped out in some areas. Fortunately, their nomadic behavior and adaptability have enabled them to survive in areas of wetlands that remain or even in more fragmented habitats.

However, theres evidence that sites traditionally occupied by the species are more often being degraded owing to the community neglect of garbage and litter, as well as unplanned urbanization. These factors put stilt populations in danger, leading to declines in their numbers.

Mexico, where the species was historically abundant, reports that more than half of wetlands have been lost since the 20th century. As a breeding species, it is generally considered localized but common in most areas where they are known to occur.

Despite this, this stilt is still considered of least concern on the IUCN red list. Nevertheless, protection of known localized breeding populations should be maintained to ensure persistence.

The ongoing loss of wetland habitats means that Black-necked Stilts and other wading birds will need continued attention to keep their populations stable and healthy. Conclusion:

The Black-necked Stilt is an incredibly resilient species that has been able to adapt to various ecological pressures, be it human disturbances or changes in environmental conditions.

However, its populations are still vulnerable. Conservation efforts should focus on the protection of wetland habitats and localized breeding populations to ensure that this iconic bird species continues to thrive across its extensive range.

By prioritizing conservation efforts, it can ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to observe the beauty and grace of the magnificent Black-necked Stilt. Habitat:

The Black-necked Stilt is both an inhabitant of coastal and inland wetlands.

This species prefers shallow, calm water, such as the margins of large freshwater or saline lakes, ponds, or lagoons, as well as flooded pastures and salt pans. They can be found across a range of ecosystems, including the sagebrush steppe, lowland riparian areas, marshes, coastal salt ponds, and rice fields.

Movements and Migration:

The Black-necked Stilt is considered a partial migrant in many parts of its range, although the extent of its migration varies among populations. Most birds from the northern part of their breeding range, such as the Great Basin and California’s Central Valley, will move to warmer southern areas during the winter.

Their migration behavior is mainly limited to local movements in response to seasonal variations in water availability and food abundance. In the southern parts of their range, including Central and South America, some birds will migrate regionally or at least travel to lower elevations to avoid high-altitude wetlands that freeze during the winter.

Black-necked Stilts in these regions are known to form nomadic flocks when wetlands become dry. The species is known to travel widely in search of suitable breeding conditions and food, making them capable migrants while requiring protection throughout the range of their movements.

The length of migration varies among different populations. Those Stilt populations that are found within the northernmost part of the species range, mostly comprising subspecies H.

m. chircoteri, migrate over long distances, traveling as far south as Central Mexico.

Stilts that breed in South America are known to travel up to 1,000 km from their breeding sites in search of favorable wetland conditions. The birds undertake their migration using a zigzag flight pattern that may involve short stops to rest and refuel.

They fly low over the water, flapping their wings in rapid, shallow beats, and can travel at the speeds of up to 56 km/h (35 mph). Migration is triggered by variations in water levels, food abundance, and environmental factors such as pollution that may render their habitats unsustainable.

As a result, the Stilt’s migration habits can be used as an indicator of environmental conditions and as a tool to assess the health of wetland ecosystems. During migration, Black-necked Stilts can be seen socializing with other migratory wetland birds, such as shorebirds and ducks.

This behavior occurs as they overlap in habitats and foraging. When foraging together, the Stilt stands while preening or resting and actively forages by walking along shallow edges on muddy bottoms.

On the other hand, shorebirds such as plovers, sandpipers, and snipes probe and pick in muddy areas by running, quickly and clue-eyed, over wetlands. Black-necked Stilts are also known to migrate in flocks, sometimes flying and feeding in groups of up to 100 birds.

The formation of these flocks could indicate that the species benefits significantly from collective movement during their long migrations, behavior that enables them to search for food and avoid predators together. Conclusion:

The Black-necked Stilt is a bird that is defined by its movement.

While semi-sedentary in some populations, it migrates to find forage and reproductive conditions in others. Its ability to pick up and travel to new locations is an important adaptive mechanism that has enabled populations of this species to persist across millions of years and a constantly changing environment.

This migratory behavior should be considered its strength, especially with climate change and environmental uncertainty increasing. Protection of roosting and breeding sites along migratory corridors is crucial to the survival of this wading species.

Diet and Foraging:

The Black-necked Stilt is primarily a carnivorous bird species, feeding mainly on invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and small aquatic animals. They mostly forage in shallow waters, using their long, thin bills to catch prey in mud, sand, and shallow water, often walking with exaggeratedly high steps to reach these locations.

They walk slowly and deliberately in the water, sweeping their bills from side to side to pick up small prey such as small fish, aquatic plants, insects, and mollusks. Feeding:

Black-necked Stilts feed during the daytime, foraging for food mostly in the early morning and late afternoon.

When foraging for insects on land, they capture them using short, quick pecks. On the other hand, while foraging in shallow water, they use a sweeping motion to capture their prey.

Although they prefer shallow water, they are also comfortable foraging in deeper water when necessary. Diet:

The species has a highly adaptable diet, with appropriate feeding habits based on the available prey.

Their diets consist mainly of insects, crustaceans, small fish, and invertebrates such as mollusks, snails, and worms. Insects include flies, wasps, ants, beetles, and dragonflies, all of which have different nutritional values.

The primary source of nutrition for Black-necked Stilts is aquatic invertebrates they acquire via suctioning.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation:

The Black-necked Stilt has a higher than-normal metabolic rate, which is expected for an active strand feeder that is flying, swimming, and searching food.

They also have incredible thermoregulation capabilities that keep their body temperature regulated, even in harsh weather conditions. Because of their high metabolism, their bodies burn energy quickly.

Thus, they must stay active throughout the day to maintain their internal temperature. During the day, they are busy foraging, flying, migrating, and defending their breeding territories.

This high metabolism rate requires that they must eat frequently to sustain their high energy demands. Sounds and Vocal Behavior:

The Black-necked Stilt is generally a quiet bird that rarely makes noise.

However, during the breeding season, they can be heard making vocalizations. Vocalization:

Black-necked Stilts perform a variety of calls when breeding.

One of the most commonly heard calls is the ‘chyep,’ which is a relatively high-pitched call made by males during courtship or territorial defense. They also make a nasal, guttural sound that is higher in pitch and is described as a ‘peet’ sound.

Black-necked Stilts also have a variety of calls unique to their interactions. These vocalizations are often used to communicate between pairs, parents, and their offspring, as well as used as a means of alarm when they sense a threat.

During aggressive interactions with other stilts, males can produce a “kee-eep” or an “eep-eep-eep-eep” sound while chasing others away from their territories. The “kee-eep” vocalization is made while the bird is in flight, while the “eep” sound is made while the bird is on the ground.


The Black-necked Stilt is a highly adaptable bird species that has remarkable thermoregulation capabilities and a highly adaptable diet that has enabled it to survive and thrive in different environments. Vocalizations are part of its breeding behavior to communicate and express aggression.

Protection of wetland ecosystems is important to the conservation of this bird species. Behavior:


The Black-necked Stilt is a highly active bird, with exceptional agility and speed.

They use their long legs to wade through water and walk on the muddy or sandy shallow areas. In-flight, their long wings are used for gliding and rapid movements.

They are capable of traveling over long distances while flying at high speeds. Self Maintenance:

Like other birds, Black-necked Stilts maintain their plumage by preening.

The process of preening involves using the oil secreted from the preen gland to spread over their feathers, making them more waterproof and preventing them from damage. They also maintain their body posture regularly by sitting, swimming, or engaging in flight to improve muscle tone.

Agonistic Behavior:

During its territorial defense, the species engages in an agonistic display. It stretches its wings and lifts its neck, presenting a tall profile to intimidate its opponent or depending on the circumstances, to attract a mate.

Sexual Behavior:

The Black-necked Stilt is a monogamous species. Besides the courtship vocalizations, males will perform aerial displays and steady flapping to attract their partner.

After copulation, the pair will work together to build a nest to lay eggs. Breeding:

The Black-necked Stilt forms monogamous breeding pairs that are generally territorial.

Breeding season commences from May to September or after the first summer rains in arid regions. During this period, display flights and courtship calls mark an increase in territorial behavior.

The territorial disputes rarely involve physical interactions but mostly involve visual and vocal displays. In some instances where an attack is imminent, it will circle above the opponent with its wings raised high while vocalizing loudly.

The eggs are laid in a depression lining up with sticks, grass, and other materials, often placed in a shallow waterbed. A grassy environment is often preferred.

The nest site is chosen based on the level of surrounding water to provide protection from predators. Black-necked Stilts tend to be highly active in nest defense, putting up aggressive postures, wing stretching, and aerial patrolling.

They are known to mob predatory animals like raccoons, skunks, snakes, and crows by flying high, vocalizing loudly, or dropping on the predator from the air. Demography and Populations:

The population of Black-necked Stilts is widely distributed across the Americas, with diverse regions catering for habitation.

Changes in environmental conditions such as urbanization, drainage, and water diversion continue to threaten the existence of various breeding populations. These factors may restrict the range of the bird and decrease its breeding success, leading to population decline and eventual local extinction.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species currently lists the Black-necked Stilt as a species of least concern. However, certain local populations are declining due to habitat loss, moisture reduction, pesticides, and other factors affecting the quantity and quality of wetlands.

Conservation efforts aimed at protecting suitable breeding habitats, increasing public awareness, and strengthening legal provisions for the species’ protection must be sustained.


The Black-necked Stilt is a bird species characterized by its highly active behavior, exceptional foraging capabilities, and mating habits.

Its territorial nature makes it a remarkable sight during the breeding season when it engages in vocal and visual displays. The species’ population is relatively stable but still vulnerable to habitat loss, pollutants, and the increasingly severe and erratic climatic variations across its range.

Thus, to sustain the current population and to conserve the Black-necked Stilt’s natural habitat, urgent efforts need to be undertaken to protect and enhance the quality of wetland ecosystems across its extensive range. In conclusion, the Black-necked Stilt is a bird species with a remarkable ability to adapt to different environments, from shallow waters to arid lands, and fly over long distances.

Their highly active behavior, exceptional foraging capabilities, and mating habits make them a sought-after sight by birders worldwide. However, human-made environmental pressures including habitat loss, climate change, pollution, and habitat degradation continue to threaten the existence of the species in many locations, especially declining region-specific populations.

Coupled with strong conservation efforts aimed at protecting and enhancing the quality of wetlands ecosystems across their range, the survival of the Black-necked Stilt can be secured, and future generations can enjoy the beauty and grace of

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