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What Is a Wading Bird?

What Makes Waders Unique?

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Great Blue Heron

Many wading birds have long legs, necks and bills.

Britta Heise

The term "wading bird" describes a wide range of species in all sizes, shapes and colors, but what unique characteristics do wading birds have in common, and why is it important for birders to understand what these birds really are?

Types of Wading Birds

Quickly identifying the overall type of a bird is essential for proper identification, and wading birds can be easy to distinguish. A wide range of bird species are loosely classified as waders, including:

  • Cranes
  • Egrets
  • Flamingos
  • Herons
  • Ibises
  • Rails
  • Spoonbills
  • Storks

Some field guides may also classify some shorebirds, particularly avocets, as waders, along with gulls or terns, and they do share some characteristics with more widely recognized wading birds.

Wading Bird Geography

Wading birds are found throughout the world on every continent except Antarctica. They can be found in both freshwater and saltwater areas, though more species tend to favor freshwater habitats. Bogs, marshes, mudflats, shorelines, ponds and flooded areas are all popular habitats for wading birds, and they can even be found in urban and suburban areas such as along golf course ponds, retention ponds or seasonal swamps. While most species of waders prefer very wet habitats, some, especially cranes, are found in areas with widely varied water levels.

Wader Physiology

Wading birds share several physical characteristics that help distinguish them as a specific type of bird, including:

  • Legs: All wading birds have long, thin legs and long, agile toes. This helps the birds keep their balance in wet areas where water currents may be present or muddy ground is unstable, and longer legs help them forage in deeper waters.

  • Bill: Many wading birds have long bills, often with specialized shapes to help them forage more efficiently. Thin bills are popular among these birds, and the bills may have sharply pointed tips, distinct curves or spatulate shapes depending on the types of foods the bird consumes.

  • Neck: Long, agile necks are common among wading birds, and the birds often change posture which may drastically change the shape of their neck. Powerful neck muscles help waders such as egrets and herons hunt effectively by spearing prey.

  • Plumage: Larger wading birds such as herons and cranes often develop elaborate plumes during the breeding season, while smaller waders such as rails are much more camouflaged.

Wading Bird Behavior

In addition to physical characteristics, wading birds share a variety of behavioral traits that help identify the bird family.

  • Foraging: In general, wading birds are patient while hunting and may stand motionless for long periods of time waiting for prey to come within reach. When moving, their steps may be slow and deliberate to not scare prey, and freeze postures are common when these birds feel threatened.

  • Communities: Many, though not all, of these birds are gregarious and will form communal roosts and breeding rookeries. They may also be a part of mixed flocks with different species of wading birds as well as other waterfowl.

  • Vocalization: As a group, wading birds are less vocal than many bird species, though flocks can be relatively noisy, and nestlings may have begging calls or whimpers. The quiet behavior of the adult birds is essential for their stealthy hunting.

  • Flight: In flight, these birds typically have their legs fully extended to the rear, with the feet often extending past the tail. Depending on the species, necks may be contracted or extended in flight, and neck positions can be useful for identification.

While a varied group of birds, wading birds share several common characteristics in physical appearance and behavior that can help birders distinguish them in the field. Understanding what makes wading birds unique is the first step toward proper identification of all the world's beautiful and unusual waders.

Photo – Great Blue Heron © 2009 Britta Heise

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