Any bird that has a strange-looking bill is a prime candidate for a blog post. Off the top of my head, I can think of some funny-billed birds I’ve covered: toucans, crossbills, shoebills, and probably more that I can’t think of. The spoon-billed sandpiper joins these illustrious birds thanks to it being on display at the Field Museum.

Spoon-billed sandpipers are found in eastern Asia, particularly along the Pacific coast. Their breeding range is restricted to specific areas in northeastern Russia, while they overwinter in warmer areas in southeast Asia. During their migration, the sandpipers stop off at the coasts of Japan, Korea, and China, and particularly rely on the Yellow Sea coastal areas.

A sandpiper during the breeding season.  Image credit: Gerrit Vyn, via http://www.allaboutbirds.org/last-of-their-kind-on-the-tundra-with-the-endangered-spoon-billed-sandpiper/
A sandpiper during the breeding season.
Image credit: Gerrit Vyn, via http://www.allaboutbirds.org/last-of-their-kind-on-the-tundra-with-the-endangered-spoon-billed-sandpiper/

The spoon-billed sandpiper is a fairly small bird, reaching lengths of 14-16 cm. During the winter, sandpipers look quite boring, with their feathers a mix of white, black, and grey. Things get a little more exciting during the breeding season, when brown gets thrown into the mix, and the birds develop a reddish brown around the head. The most distinctive feature of the spoon-billed sandpiper is, of course, its bill. The bill is spatula shaped, a unique feature among shorebirds.

This odd bill helps the birds feed. The sandpipers walk forward while swinging their heads in a side-to-side motion, which stirs up tasty morsels for them to snatch up. These are usually invertebrates, such as larval midges, flies, beetles, and spiders, as well as shrimp and worms.

A lovely illustration of the spoon-billed sandpiper's bill.  Image source: Wikipedia
A lovely illustration of the spoon-billed sandpiper’s bill.
Image source: Wikipedia

Breeding in sandpipers begins in late May or early June, when the vast frozen wasteland of northeastern Russia is less frozen, and less of a wasteland. Males are very territorial, and return to the same nest site year after year. They use a combination of wing flaps and vocalizations to display, both to establish territory and attract a mate. Females lay up to four eggs, which hatch after 19-23 days. Both parents share the burden of caring for the eggs, but the female leaves soon after the chicks hatch, leaving the male to care for them until they fledge.

Spoon-billed sandpipers rely on very specific habitats, especially during their winter migration. Human developments, particularly along the Yellow Sea, have destroyed some of the most important migratory habitats for sandpipers. As a result of this, spoon-billed sandpipers are now critically endangered, with less than 2500 birds left in the wild. Hopefully we can do something before these guys actually go extinct.

Cover image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H26Tl7e3KeU

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