Tringa flavipeslesser yellowlegs

Geographic Range

Lesser yellowlegs breed in interior Alaska and northern Canada as far east as central Quebec. They breed between 51 and 69 degrees north latitude in suitable habitat. They breed farther north than their close relative, greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), where they co-occur. Historically, some populations of lesser yellowlegs might have bred farther south then they do currently. Lesser yellowlegs are migratory. In winter, they are found along the coasts of North America from New Jersey on the Atlantic coast and San Francisco Bay on the Pacific coast and along coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California. They winter throughout most of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Antilles. The largest concentration of wintering birds occurs in Suriname and along the Gulf of Mexico. Small numbers are found wintering in inland areas throughout their winter range. Vagrant individuals have been reported from Greenland, Iceland, offshore islands, the British Isles, mainland Europe, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, eastern Asia, and the Hawaiian Islands. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)


Lesser yellowlegs nest in open and edge boreal forest habitats, usually near wetlands. They are found in open deciduous or coniferous forest mosaics with wet or sedge meadows, marshes, bogs, or muskegs. In the breeding season they travel between nesting areas and foraging areas daily, with foraging areas mainly along the shores of lakes, sloughs, estuaries, and marshes. During migration and winter they are found in inland (spring and fall migration) and coastal (fall migration) wetland habitats of all kinds from 0 to 3800 meters elevation. Highest concentrations of migrating and wintering individuals tend to be seen in mudflats, saltwater marshes, and lagoons near the coast. They may also be seen in flooded agricultural fields.

  • Range elevation
    0 to 3800 m
    0.00 to 12467.19 ft

Physical Description

Lesser yellowlegs are medium-sized sandpipers with long, yellow legs and long, graceful necks. Males and females are similar in plumage and size, although females have longer wingspans on average. In the breeding season lesser yellowlegs have grey, black, and white mottled plumage dorsally, white belly, and brown streaks on a white background on the neck and breast. Their primary feathers are black. Outside of the breeding season their colors are more muted and uniformly gray on the upperparts, with some spotting, and white with small gray spots on their underparts. There is no reported geographic variation. They are easily recognized by their long legs, necks, and bills and bright yellow legs, being only confused with greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca). Lesser yellowlegs are overall smaller than greater yellowlegs by up to 30% and their bill is slender and about the same length as the head. The bills of greater yellowlegs are about 1.5 times the length of their head, more robust, and are slightly upturned. They can also be distinguished by their call: 1 to 3 (usually 2) low notes in lesser yellowlegs, 3 to 4 higher, more resonant notes in greater yellowlegs. Their bills are black. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes shaped differently
  • Range mass
    67 to 94 g
    2.36 to 3.31 oz
  • Range length
    23 to 25 cm
    9.06 to 9.84 in
  • Range wingspan
    59 to 64 cm
    23.23 to 25.20 in


Lesser yellowlegs are seasonally monogamous, pairs typically don't mate again in subsequent years. Males perform flight displays, accompanied by song, over nesting and foraging areas in the breeding range to attract mates. Males may also behave aggressively towards other males when establishing nesting territories and during courtship. Males guard females from other males during courtship and egg-laying. Extra-pair copulations have not been reported. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Lesser yellowlegs migrate to breeding areas where they form pairs soon after arrival and begin breeding, usually by mid-May. They form simple nest scrapes and lay 4 eggs (maximum 6) in June and July. They may dig and line up to 75 nest scrapes before deciding on a final one. Scrapes are placed in elevated, mossy, dry areas, with overhanging vegetation and within 200 meters of water. Eggs are generally buffy, gray, brown, or green with brown spots. Although lesser yellowlegs may re-nest after a nest failure, it is likely that pairs raise only 1 brood yearly. Eggs are incubated for 22 to 23 days and eggs hatch within a few days of each other. Young leave the nest within a few hours of all eggs hatching and can fly within 22 to 23 days after hatching. They are independent from 23 to 31 days after hatching. Some lesser yellowlegs attempt to breed in their first year of hatching, but more attempt their first breeding at 2 years old. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

  • Breeding interval
    Lesser yellowlegs breed once yearly in general, although individuals may skip breeding years.
  • Breeding season
    Lesser yellowlegs breed in May each year.
  • Range eggs per season
    6 (high)
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    22 to 23 days
  • Range fledging age
    22 to 23 days
  • Range time to independence
    1 to 9 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 (low) years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 (low) years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Both parents incubate and brood the young. Young are precocial at hatching and can get around on their own and feed themselves within hours. Parents lead young to foraging areas by flying ahead, landing, and then calling to the young. Both parents continue to protect the young until they fledge or a few days longer, although females may abandon males with the young. Females generally stay with the young for about 11 days after hatching, males stay with them for about 26 days after hatching. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


There is little data on survival and lifespan in the wild. The oldest recorded wild individual was 4 years and 9 months old. Known causes of mortality are predation, disease, vehicle collisions, hypothermia, poisoning, and hunting. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    4.75 (high) years


Lesser yellowlegs migrate northwards from February to May and migrate southwards between June and October. In spring they migrate through both interior and coastal areas, especially interior United States, but in fall they migrate only along coasts. Females and individuals who weren't successful breeding begin migrating first, followed by males and then juveniles. They fly in small, mixed flocks of 3 to more than 50 and have been observed migrating during the day and at night. They also forage at night and during the day. Lesser yellowlegs form territorial pairs during breeding season and generally travel in small flocks outside of the breeding season, although they may also forage and roost on their own. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Lesser yellowlegs walk with a quick, graceful gait and their flight has been described as languid, although they can fly up to 75 km per hour. They typically walk through shallow water but will also swim. They sleep with one leg and their bill tucked into their feathers and may drop their wings to sun themselves. They spend most of their time foraging. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Home Range

Lesser yellowlegs defend nesting territories and foraging territories in their winter range. Winter territories were from 0.5 to 1 ha. Nesting territory size is difficult to determine because nest location is often very cryptic. Birds have been reported responding to intruders up to 200 meters away from a nest. During the breeding season, male and female mates travel daily to the same foraging area, up to 13 km from their nest. Parents with young have been observed up to 3 km from their nest. Lesser yellowlegs have fairly high site fidelity, with up to 65% of individuals returning to the same area to breed each year. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Communication and Perception

Both males and females give the characteristic "tu-tu" call of lesser yellowlegs, which seems to be a welcome or contact call. They use a sharp "kip" alarm call that is accompanied by bobbing of the tail and head. Parents use a softer "kip" or "cup" call with nestlings and males chatter before copulation. Breeding males and females also perform a song, described as "pill-e-wee" repeated, but only males perform a flight display to advertise breeding territories. Flight displays involve a male flying to 10 to 75 m, then leveling off and gliding down while spreading the tail, dangling the legs, and elevating the head. Songs and calls are often performed from perches and vocalizations are more frequent during the breeding season. Lesser yellowlegs also use appeasement and aggressive displays, usually in foraging or courtship interactions. Males also use a pre-copulatory display that involves a chase accompanied by chatter. If a female is receptive, he then lifts his wings above his head and flutters the wing tips. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Food Habits

Lesser yellowlegs eat mainly invertebrates, especially flies and beetles. They may also eat small fish, snails, spiders, crustaceans, worms, and seeds. They forage by walking through shallow water or mud and plucking prey from at or below the surface with their long bill. They either make short jabs with the bill or move the bill from side to side, snapping at prey that they find. They may forage at any time of the day. Most foraging is in water that is only a few cm deep, although they may forage in water up to their bellies. Reported insect prey includes high proportions of midges (Chironomidae), water boatmen (Corixidae), mayflies (Baetidae), and water scavenging beetles (Hydrophilidae). Individuals may display aggression towards others when competing over food resources. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts


Adults and fledglings are taken by a wide variety of avian predators, including peregrine falcons, merlins, long-tailed jaegers, northern harriers, northern goshawks, sharp-shinned hawks, short-eared owls, and gyrfalcons. Snapping turtles have been known to attack adults while foraging. Adults attack potential predators of eggs and nestlings, including sandhill cranes, peregrine falcons, merlins, northern harriers, bald eagles, mew gulls, herring gulls, short-eared owls, common ravens, black-billed magpies, coyotes, and domestic cats. Potential predators include mink, martens, and red foxes (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Lesser yellowlegs aggressively and enthusiastically defend nests and young from predators, including joining together to mob predators. When alarmed, they bob their heads. In response to terrestrial predators they hover and call, possibly to alert other birds and mob the predator. Nesting adults are very reluctant to flush from a nest, staying on until a predator is less than 1 m away. They may dive at predators or use distraction displays to lure them away. Peregrine falcons swoop on nesting areas to flush birds and then grab them in mid-flight. Sandhill cranes actively search for young by moving their heads back and forth through marsh grasses. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Lesser yellowlegs may flock and migrate with or nest near other species of shorebirds, including greater yellowlegs, Hudsonian godwits, American avocets, pectoral sandpipers, dowitchers, stilt sandpipers, white-rumped sandpipers, and semipalmated sandpipers. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Lesser yellowlegs are vulnerable to eastern encephalitis and avian botulism. Known internal parasites include cestodes (Kowalewskiella totani) and trematodes (Cyclocoelum brasilianun). External parasites reported are bird lice (Quadraceps falcigerus) and nasal mites (Neoboydaia philomachi and Rhinonyssus coniventris). (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • cestodes (Kowalewskiella totani)
  • trematodes (Cyclocoelum brasilianun)
  • bird lice (Quadraceps falcigerus)
  • nasal mites (Neoboydaia philomachi)
  • nasal mites (Rhinonyssus coniventris)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Lesser yellowlegs are important predators of aquatic insects where they occur. Historically, and in some areas still, they are hunted for food. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of lesser yellowlegs on humans.

Conservation Status

Populations of lesser yellowlegs are currently estimated at up to 800,000 birds and they are widespread. Although they were previously hunted widely and populations may not have recovered to previous levels, they are currently considered least concern by the IUCN. However, population decreases along migration routes have been documented. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)

Other Comments

Although lesser yellowlegs are often considered the closest relative of greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), some research suggests that they may not be. Osteological evidence suggests that greater yellowlegs may be closest to spotted redshanks (Tringa erythropus). Other researchers have placed the yellowlegs together in their own genus, Neoglottis. (Tibbits and Moskoff, 1999)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Tibbits, T., W. Moskoff. 1999. Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes). The Birds of North America Online, 427: 1-20. Accessed May 06, 2009 at