American Avocet

 

american avocetWith its bright cinnamon hued head and its upturned bill, the American avocet is one of Oklahoma’s most unique shorebirds. Recurvirostra americana has long, thin, blue-gray legs, good for wading along the shores of wetlands. During the breeding season, the avocet’s head and neck are a cinnamon-pink, which then fades to a grayish-white during the winter. The body of an avocet is covered with contrasting black and white plumage.

The bill of an American avocet is curved slightly upward, the female’s more so than the male’s. A female’s bill is also slightly shorter than the bill of a male. Avocets feed by thrusting their bills into the water and swinging them from side to side along the bottom to stir up aquatic insects and other food items. Avocets also eat small crustaceans, plants, and other small aquatic animals.
Avocets mate from April to June in the western half of the United States. This range includes the Oklahoma panhandle. Avocets engage in elaborate courtship displays, with great amounts of posturing. These beautiful birds nest in colonies of ten or twelve individuals. Nests are constructed of vegetation and twigs on the ground in mudflats and marshes. Since these birds nest near water, flooding is a possibility, but the avocet has a defense against the rising waters. If floods threaten the nest, the avocets will raise the nest over a foot with sticks, weeds, bones, feathers, and anything else they can find.

If danger comes not from the water but from a predator, avocets will defend their nest and youngsters very aggressively. These birds engage in distraction displays such as the "broken-wing" trick. Avocets will also "dive-bomb" perceived predators in order to chase them away from the nest or chicks.

Down covered avocet chicks hatch about 23 days after the olive-colored eggs are laid. Clutch size is typically three or four eggs. Avocet chicks are able to follow their parents almost immediately. They are capable of feeding themselves soon after hatching, and can even swim if need be.

American avocets are commonly found along the shores of salty lakes, fresh and saltwater marshes, mudflats, and on coastal bays. Birders in Oklahoma can view breeding avocets in wetlands in the Panhandle counties, Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge and at Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area in Tillman County.

American avocets are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the primary threat to the species is the loss of breeding and wintering grounds due to habitat destruction and draining of wetlands. In this era of sprawling cities and extensive urban and agricultural development, wetlands restoration projects like Hackberry Flat WMA are vital to the protection of all waterfowl and shorebirds, including the graceful, colorful American Avocet.