I’m a Whirlybird!

Did You Know…?

  • …that the Phalarope is especially equipped to be able to drink sea water and not be harmed?
  • …that the Phalarope doubles its weight in less than a month before migrating south?
  • …that the Phalarope flies 2000 miles in 2 days non-stop?
  • …that the Phalarope changes colors from season to season?
  • …that Mrs. Phalarope leaves all the child-rearing to her husband?
  • …that the tiny Phalarope and the mighty whale are friends?
  • …that Mr. Phalarope’s “dress” is not as colorful as Mrs. Phalarope’s?
There aren’t a lot of us, and we aren’t very well known, but somehow I feel like telling the whole world what a great testimony we are to the skills of our wonderful Designer!

Putting it simply, birds like us just don’t “happen.” You’ll agree when I tell you a few details.

I suppose everybody feels unique in some way. Well, if you ask me, I’d say that we phalaropes (pronounced FAL-ah-ropes) give this word more than its normal meaning.

First, let me tell you a little about our background. We’re true northerners, native to Alaska and northern Canada, all the way to the Arctic coast. And we’re true shorebirds. You’ve seen the sandpipers that run up and down the beach? They are our close cousins. Yet we are very different. Except for coming to the land to raise our families each year, we spend most of our ten-year life swimming on the ocean.

Wilsons Phalarope courtesy of USFWS
Now I don’t mean to sound boastful, but when it comes to swimming, we’re really good at it. Why? Because our Creator provided us with special lobes on our toes which make swimming very easy. We’re as buoyant on the water as tiny seagulls.

Then, too, we’re made to fly. I say that because our Creator made us true “light weights.” You’ve heard some land animals pride themselves on being heavy? Not us! We’re built for the air. Our slim, streamlined bodies average six to ten inches long, yet never weigh more than two ounces. How is that possible? I can’t really tell you, except that I know Someone planned our design. And like most birds, we have those strong, hollow bones that are just perfect for flight. Why is all this necessary? I’ll leave that to later.

First I want to tell you about the three branches of our distinguished family: they are called the Red-necked (to which I belong), the Northern and the Wilson phalaropes. We’re alike in many ways, yet quite different. Our main distinction is our dress, and—would you believe it—our Creator has arranged for us to have a different dress for different seasons! For instance, right now (late summer) my body and neck is gold colored, and I have dark gray wings. (How is that for design!) My plumage, too, is trimmed in gold. This winter my gold will turn white, my dark gray wings stay as they are, my plumage be trimmed in white, and I’ll have a white crown on my head. Then when it comes spring, all that white turns rusty red (that’s where I get my name “red necked”). My dark gray wings are still beautiful, now trimmed in rusty orange. My slender bill changes from black to yellow, with just a tip of black at the end. Why so many changes? You’ll have to ask my Maker.
Red-necked Phalarope: USFWS
Mr. Phalarope wears consistently darker, drabber colors, in all seasons. I know that’s not the norm among bird families, but again, if you want to know why you’ll have to ask our Maker.

Collecting Food

Perhaps our most singular distinction is in our eating habits. Our food needs no planting, processing or preserving. And it’s always plentiful. You don’t understand? The most delicious dish I can think of is fresh zooplankton, scooped right out of the cool, salt sea water. If you’ve ever been swimming near the shore and looked closely at the water, you’ve noticed that it is full of these tiny animals.

How do we ever collect enough of them in sufficient quantities to live on? Here is where I feel especially gifted by my Creator. It’s so very easy. I just sit on the water and, using my lobed feet as propellers, I spin my body around very fast. In fact, I spin so fast that it creates a vortex below me like a little tornado in the water. The tiny animals that happen to be nearby are drawn into it and pulled upward by the spinning. When I stop spinning, all I have to do is put my beak to the water—and scoop! scoop! scoop! With every scoop I harvest a huge mouthful of delicious seafood. I really never have to worry about having enough to eat—isn’t that a tremendous favor from my Creator? The sea gives me everything I need.
Red Phalarope: USFWS
Do you see why I’m nicknamed “whirlybird”?

That’s why we rarely go to the land. Oh yes, we do enjoy occasionally wading or walking along the beach, foraging for food. At other times, when we’re swimming, we light on floating seaweed, from which we pick food. And sometimes we help our kind friends the whales by picking (and eating) parasites from their backs. Actually, we keep close company with the whales—they’re our good friends, and they like zooplankton, too!

Nesting Habits

When it’s time to raise our family (in the spring) we go ashore. Where do we build our nests? Right on the ground, usually near the water, among the low vegetation. You think it doesn’t sound like a very safe location? It isn’t, but we need them for such a short time that it isn’t a big problem. And the undergrowth along the beach is often very dense.

The building job is easy. Mr. Phalarope does it all alone. He makes it of whatever sticks and small branches he can find, then lines the nest with grass, lichens and moss. Then I come and lay in it four precious eggs, and go back out to sea. That’s all I do. The rest of the family thing is Mr. Phalarope’s job. He keeps the eggs warm until they hatch, then looks after the little ones. Actually, our young chicks are quite self-sufficient. They don’t take a lot of care. Within an hour of hatching, they’ve usually found their way to the water’s edge and are swimming and spinning for themselves, whirling up that delicious plankton to eat. In sixteen to eighteen days after hatching, they are able to fly.

What if a hungry predator finds our nest and devours the eggs? I simply lay another four eggs in it. Sometimes, too, the weather may be unpredictable (remember, we’re true northerners). But since my Creator has made me able to produce as many as sixteen eggs—twice my body weight!—our families are rarely short of young.

Northern Phalarope Chick: USFWS

I told you that we’re natives of the north? We’re really world travelers. Come July, it’s time to go south. Then in the spring, we head back north.

We like to travel in groups, several hundred of us together. If you’ve ever seen us, you more than likely admired us (but let me remind you to praise our Creator, not us!). Yes, we’re real artists about our flying. We beat our wings rapidly—in unison. It’s a little like a precision drill team show. Why? All I can say is, that’s the way we always do it, thanks to our great designer.

When we start south, most of my branch of the family (the Red-neckeds) congregate at a small lake on the west coast of the United States (called Mono Lake). Why there? It seems like a family custom. But there’s a reason. Mono Lake has such a huge supply of flies and shrimp that it’s almost like stopping at a big restaurant. We stay long enough to fuel up for the trip, usually about a month. In fact, we eat so much that we approximately double our weight in a month or so—from one ounce to two. Now just think about that. Think about what you’d have to do to double your weight in just one month.

Then we start south on a non-stop flight to South America. It’s 2000 plus miles of straight flying, all the way to the central Andes mountains. And we do it in just two days.

Water From the Sea

There is one other very important detail I forgot to mention. If you were stranded on the ocean for many days, do you know what would be your biggest problem? You wouldn’t have any water to drink. And if you drank the salt water, you’d be in worse trouble. How is it that we can survive on the high sea for weeks and months at a time? Because our kind ingenious, Creator has provided for this need. We can drink all the salt water we want and feel no ill effects because we’ve been equipped with a special nasal gland (really a modified tear gland), located right above each eye. This gland literally sieves the salt out of the water we drink, so that it’s clear and pure. What do we do with the salt? If you’ve ever watched us, you may have seen us shaking our heads from side to side. It’s not that we’re saying “no” to anything. That’s how we discharge the salt from our nostrils. (Didn’t I tell you we are unique?)

I don’t know about you, but I say we have a marvelous Creator! One thing I know, birds like me don’t just happen!

Sources of Information:

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica Copyright 1994-1999
  • Phalaropes: Alaska Department of Fish and Game
    Text: Douglas Schamel and Diane M. Tracy. Revised and reprinted 1994
    Copyright C 1994-97 Alaska Department of Fish and Game. All Rights Reserved.
  • The United States Geological Survey on the Web (Page No Longer Available)
  • Mammoth Web, Your Complete Guide to the Mammoth Lakes (Page Longer Available)
  • Peterson’s Field Guides, On the Web: Peterson OnLine is a service of HMI Net published by Houghton Mifflin