Seeing an American Avocet around Cesar Chavez Park is a rare treat; the last one I saw was in March 2017. Seeing a whole little flock of them is rarer still. Here they forage in the low tide, sweeping their elegant upturned needle-like beaks from side to side in the shallow puddles. It feeds on tiny floating food items too small to interest other shorebirds.
The Avocet leads a counter-intuitive life. The sharp contrasts of its looks seem to make it an easy target, and prudence would seem to counsel habits of concealment. Not so. It makes its nests in central and northern regions where vegetation is scarce or lacking altogether. Similarly, when it feeds in the winter, like here, it moves in shallow waters where it cannot dive, and where it stands out among other shorebirds. Nonetheless, it manages somehow to avoid peril, and it’s listed as a species of “Low Concern” for conservation, with numbers increasing greatly on the East Coast.
The Cornell bird lab website gives these Cool Facts about the American Avocet:
- In response to predators, the American Avocet gives a series of call notes that gradually rise in pitch, simulating the Doppler effect and making its approach seem faster than it actually is.
- A female American Avocet sometimes lays eggs in the nest of another female, who incubates them without noticing. This is called “brood parasitism,” and American Avocets may do it to other species, too; American Avocet eggs have been found in the nests of Mew Gulls. On the other hand, species such as Common Terns and Black-necked Stilts may also parasitize avocet nests. In the case of the stilts, the avocets reared the hatchlings as if they were their own.
- American Avocets place their nests directly on the ground without the benefit of shrubs to provide shade. To keep the eggs from overheating during incubation, they dip their belly feathers in water.
- American Avocet chicks leave the nest within 24 hours of hatching. Day-old avocets can walk, swim, and even dive to escape predators.
- The oldest recorded American Avocet was at least 15 years old when it was found in California, where it had been banded a decade and a half earlier.