Life on Stilts
The elegant BLACK-NECKED STILT balances atop pink ballerina legs on the mudflats.
Each spring, the marsh transforms into a world of mud and shallow waters. Approaching from the air are the conquerors of this new environment, shorebirds. The battle for food can be chaotic as thousands of birds of all shapes and sizes attack every inch of exposed mudflats and shallows.
Amid the hustle and bustle stands a bird on pink stilts. Cutting an elegant figure, the black-necked stilt is a tall and delicately deceiving bird. Unlike the sandpipers that adopt drab brown coloring for camouflage, it stands radiant with its black-and-white feathers atop a pair of thin, pink spindles.
You’ll have to look closely to see the main difference in appearance between the sexes: the female has a brownish back, the color of milk chocolate, while her mate’s back is more like dark chocolate. Otherwise, they appear to be twins.
The stilt pair share nest-building, which occurs on open ground in loose colonies.
Don’t be deceived by the bird’s assumed fragility — the black-necked stilt is a hardy survivor of the mudflats. While the dowitcher, another shorebird, attacks its prey blindly in the mud, the stilt uses keen red eyes to scan the water and strike with a needle-like bill, targeting brine shrimp, beetles and tadpoles.
The marsh can be a dangerous place where the raptors come to hunt for avian prey. If a stilt spots a northern harrier it might send out a noisy alarm “kip-kip-kip-kip” that’s heard for great distances.
That cry signals that now is the time to rally. Every stilt gathers toward the center with eyes on the sky. Together, the flock must act as one to survive the oncoming assault. The raptor approaches, but they stand firm.
The mesh of black and white confuses the predator, which can’t select an individual out of the flock. After a few unsuccessful passes, the raptor gives up and retreats. Safe for now, the stilts begin to relax and venture off by themselves again.
The shorebirds are common summer residents along the Texas coast, with many flying south for the winter. So, if you pass by a marsh, rice field or flooded field and see a black-and-white bird on a pair of pink stilts, pay it some respect. Life isn’t easy on stilts.
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