April 22, 2011


For Sale: One Used Sandpiper

by Lorna Salzman

I was googling the other day and came across a letter from someone complaining about how his used Sandpiper wasn't working very well. I momentarily considered responding to tell him that he should get another one on e-bay or a brand new one, but then remembered that it is illegal to trap wild birds.

Reading further I then realized he was talking about some obscure kind of motor or motorized vehicle. So why was I googling sandpipers in the first place? I - and apparently hundreds of other bird watchers - are DESPERATE to know why shorebirds stand and even hop on one leg. They do it while they rest, sleep or move away from photographers, bird watchers and dogs. They will hop away on one leg in preference to flying, which one would think is a more effective survival strategy.

It was comforting to see that I was not the only one asking this question. There were dozens and dozens of postings on this very topic and responses from bird watchers, hunters, scientists, university professors and others. But it was less comforting to discover that no really satisfactory answer was forthcoming.

Some were humorous of course: "They stand on one leg because if they lift it up they would fall down". Others tried to come up with reasonably scientific answers. Of these only two seemed to have any merit: heat regulation and ability to detect danger.

Several people said that on one leg, the bird can more quickly swivel around to look in all directions before taking off if there is danger. I don't buy this argument because birds’ heads swivel quite satisfactorily in many directions when they are on two legs. Another said that it could take off more quickly from a one-leg position, but another respondent dispelled this notion quite credibly. The response that got most support was that of heat regulation, though even this raises questions.

A bird's legs and bill, being unfeathered, are the major sites of heat loss; raising one leg conserves heat as does tucking the bill under the feathers when it rests or sleeps. But as one person (from Australia, naturally) pointed out, they do these things under all climatic conditions, cold or hot. Maybe in this case, as in so many others, we need to look for the simplest explanation (Occam's Razortheorem): that the bird is giving the invisible leg a rest.

Watching bird behavior is very rewarding, as this demonstrates. But it requires patience, good powers of observation and hearing, costly binoculars, and a tolerance for macho men practicing one-upsmanship. Having watched birds now for nearly forty-five years, I have observed some quite amazing and amusing sights. I often wonder why everyone is not a bird-watcher. Of all the hobbies available it is probably the easiest and most rewarding intellectually and aesthetically. And it can travel with you everywhere.

Anywhere you go, whether to the rainforest or visiting relatives in another part of this country, you have the possibility of seeing entirely new birds in new habitats. This beats shopping any day and costs less over time even if you buy binoculars. My husband and I have even birded (that is the correct term) from inside airport terminals in far-off lands. You never know what you will see. That's the fun of it. It's called serendipity. It's like catching that big fish: there are no guarantees but the payoff when it comes is worth the time spent.

My favorite bird joke: Why do birds fly south in the winter? Because it's too far to walk.