Not Least

These Least Sandpipers are pecking at the mud with the speed of a sewing machine. There can’t possibly be a bit of reward at the end of every peck. They must be pecking at random, working the law of averages. They could do it with their eyes closed. However, it isn’t all brute chance. Like many other shorebirds, these sandpipers have sensory cells in the tip of the bill that can feel the consistency of the material below, and can distinguish between interesting soft stuff and no-good mud or rocks. If they do find something interesting they go a bit deeper to grab it. Then they swallow it so fast that there’s hardly a bird’s heartbeat of a pause before the next peck. I can’t begin to estimate how many pecks they do before they hit something edible. And when they do strike pay dirt, it must be very small. In any case, even though it looks doubtful from the viewpoint of energy efficiency, the method must be working for them; they don’t look peaked.

But that isn’t the whole of the story of these little creatures’ feeding methods. A couple of weeks later I saw them again at a deep low tide when the exposed mud had these odd fingers sticking up out of it. I don’t know what they are. Here the birds worked rapidly, as before, but much more selectively. Here it wasn’t rat-tat-tat anywhere and everywhere. They found something that looked good and then moved on quickly.

A few days later I saw yet another side of their versatility. The tide was high, and they foraged on the rocks, pecking at limpets and barnacles as if they were Black Turnstones. Their beaks obviously are not only sensitive, they’re hard and sharp.

The video shows all three modes of their foraging in sequence. I’d underestimated these birds, thinking of them just as mudpeckers. The “Least” label that the bird naming authorities have stuck to them does them no favors. Fact is, they’re the smallest sandpipers. Why must the value judgment “least” be hung around their necks?

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)
Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)

More about the Least: Wikipedia Audubon Cornell In Chavez Park

Similar Posts:

2 thoughts on “Not Least

  • Those odd fingers sticking up at low tide are tube worms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Translate »