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Ladies First: Role Reversals Of Spotted Sandpipers

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Kenneth Cole Schneider
Flickr/Creative Commons

From shores of wild waterways to not-so-wild urban ponds, a small bird startles up and flies low over the water with quick, stiff wingbeats.

It's a spotted sandpiper, a small shorebird often encountered along freshwater shorelines.

Shorebirds come in all sizes, and spotted sandpipers are in the short, stocky category. Despite coloring that blends well with sand and rocks, there's a movement that often gives spotted sandpipers away: they bob up and down as though seized by intense hiccups. When stalking prey, however, their teetering stops.

Notably, spotted sandpipers practice male-female role reversals: females are larger, arrive north first to establish a breeding territory, and attract males with various courtship displays. The females lay the eggs, but the males incubate them and tend the chicks when they hatch. Meanwhile, the female moves on to mate with another male and lay another clutch of eggs. This behavior is termed polyandry, meaning "many males," and it's rare among birds. Polygyny, the opposite - a male with "many females" - is much more common.

The female sandpiper doesn't abandon maternal duties entirely, however; she'll assist her last mate or two  in raising the young. The system seems to work: Spotted sandpipers are the most widespread shorebird in North America.

While most shorebirds pass through New Hampshire spring and fall without lingering, this commoner settles in along most waterways. On your next shoreline walk or paddle, keep an eye and ear out for this shorebird with a teetering gait and intriguing approach to parental roles.

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