Willets are large, long-legged shorebirds. They are grey or brown overall and they have a distinctive white rump and broad, white wing stripe visible when they are flying. They are 33 to 41 cm long and from 200 to 330 grams. Sexes are similar in color, but females are slightly larger. There are two populations of willets that differ in distribution, ecology, and appearance. Western willets, which breed in western North America, are larger and paler, eastern willets, which breed in eastern North America, are slightly smaller and darker overall. The sounds they make and their habitats differ also. Their bill and legs are grayish, but vary from light to dark. The toes are slightly webbed.
Willets are widespread in the Americas. They are found in sandy beaches and wetlands in coastal and inland areas during the winter and breeding seasons from southern Canada and northern California south to Venezuela, Brazil, and Uruguay. They are occasionally seen in Europe and the Hawaiian Islands.
Willets are found in a wide variety of coastal habitats in winter, during migration, and during breeding season, including sandy coastlines, mudflats, and rocky intertidal zones. Western willets breed in wetlands and grasslands near water and with sparse vegetation, including croplands. They are also found along lakeshores and on salt or alkali flats. Eastern willets breed in coastal marsh and wetland habitats, including salt marshes and beaches.
Willets for mated pairs that last for many years, even for their whole lives. Mated pairs are not found together throughout the year, but they find each other again at the start of the breeding season. They use displays and calls to re-establish their relationship and begin nesting. They fly with their wings held high above their heads and flutter their primary feathers. Females fly to the male and hover beneath him while they sing to each other. They then slowly fly to the ground together.
Willets breed from May through July. Once pairs have formed, they begin to search for a nest site together. Nests are simple scrapes that are lined with grass. Willets have one brood yearly. Females lay 4 greenish eggs. Incubation is 22 to 29 days, averaging 25. Young willets generally can fly about 4 weeks after hatching. Males and females breed as early as their 2nd year.
Both males and females incubate eggs and protect the young. Young are able to walk and feed themselves within hours of hatching. Hatchlings leave the nest within a day of hatching. Females stay with the young for up to 2 weeks, males for 4 weeks or more.
The oldest recorded willet in the wild was 10 years and 3 months old. Eggs and nestlings may be lost to predators, severe weather, or high tides.
Willets can be active at any time of the day, they take advantage of tides and moonlight to find prey. Willets use their long legs to run after prey. They fly relatively low and will occasionally swim. They are found in small groups, except during the breeding season. Some willet populations are resident year-round, such as those in the Antilles or in California. Other populations migrate short to long distances. Eastern willets migrate along coastlines. Western willets migrate along the Mississippi River and over other inland areas. Willets migrate at night in small groups.
Willets aggressively defend territories during the breeding season. Few studies have estimated home range, but a Florida study suggested that home range sizes were 0.26 to 5.90 square km.
Willets are known for their "pill-will-willet" call. This call is used to define territories and in mating displays. Willets use a repertoire of other calls, from high pitched squeaks of the young to appeasement calls (Kyah-yah), clicks, clucks, honks, and screams.
Willets eat many kinds of invertebrates, depending on what is found in the local area. They eat insects, crustaceans, molluscs, worms, and occasional fish. Willets feed at all times of the day, depending on tide patterns and moonlight. They chase prey down visually and use their bills to probe for prey in sand and mud or turn over objects to find prey underneath. They also walk through shallow water with their bills open and held in the water to hunt by touch.
Willets use calls to warn others of predators and they will come together to mob predators. During nesting, willet parents defend their young and will attack predators. When a hawk or falcon is hunting, willets sometimes crouch or hide, rather than flying. Most predation on willets is on eggs and young. Adults are mainly taken by raptors or terrestrial predators when they are on a nest. Reported predators on eggs include northern harriers, Cooper's hawks, red-shouldered hawks, fish crows, common ravens, American crows, raccoons, red foxes, coyotes, rat snakes, and feral dogs. Fish crows and American crows hunt in groups of 3 for willet nests and cooperate to drive off adults while they take the eggs. Adults and young are taken by Swainson's hawks, northern harriers, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks, and herring gulls. There are many other potential predators, including other raptors, snakes, and terrestrial predators, such as mink, otters, and skunks.
Willets compete directly for food with a wide variety of similarly-sized shorebirds and often interact aggressively over food and space. They have been recorded competing with long-billed curlews, least sandpipers, common terns, least terns, American crows, Wilson's phalaropes, greater yellowlegs, killdeer, dowitchers, Wilson's plovers, fish crows, marbled godwits, and gulls. Willets are parasitized by a wide variety of internal parasites, including numerous species of flukes, tapeworms, roundworms, and spiny-headed worms.
There are no adverse effects of willets on humans.
Willets were once eaten and eggs and young were collected for markets. They are interesting and charismatic shorebirds.
Willets have a large geographic range and relatively large population sizes. There don't seem to be any significant declines in population recently. They are considered "least concern" by the IUCN and are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. However, the habitats they depend on for breeding, migration, and wintering are being destroyed and contaminated. Grassland and coastal marsh habitats, which willets use for breeding, are especially endangered.
Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.
Lowther, P., H. Douglas. 2001. Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus). The Birds of North America Online, 579: 1-20. Accessed April 15, 2009 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.proxy.lib.umich.edu/bna/species/579.