Each spring, a strikingly elegant bird struts the shores of Colorado. In its breeding plumage, it is a headturner, with an aristocratic visage and long slender body showcased in tuxedo-like black and white, its head and neck adorned in a hood of pumpkin tan. The bird’s remarkably long legs are covered in bluish gray leggings. The look is truly classic, sleek and uniquely American. If fashion legend Ralph Lauren was given the task of designing a shorebird for a spring/summer show, the American avocet would be the result. (A description out of a biological textbook wouldn’t do the American avocet justice — if you have seen one in person, you’d understand.)
From late March through mid-April, American avocets (Recurvirostra americana) make their way from their winter residences along the coasts of California, Texas, Florida, Mexico, etc. up to their breeding grounds which generally run east of the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico up into Canada. Flocks of 50–300 birds make the trip to form loose breeding colonies in their preferred habitat of beaches, mud flats, marshy areas, shallow lakes and prairie ponds.
After reaching their breeding grounds, avocet pairs establish little territories and set about the business of raising young. Courtship can be initiated by either the male or female. Preening displays and splashing of water is then followed by the female posing with head low and neck outstretched — signalling her readiness. Often, after copulation, the two stroll off together, necks entwined.
The pairs search islands or mucky shorelines near the water for an area of ground relatively clear of vegetation to make their nests. Nests range from simple indentatons in the dirt, to scrapes lined with vegetation, debris and pebbles, to small mounds. Typically, four eggs (cream-colored with dark brown freckles) are laid and then incubated for 23–25 days. During the day, both parents take turns sitting on the eggs, but at night, the female gets incubation duty.
Downy-feathered avocet chicks are born able to walk and swim, and are able to forage for themselves. The chicks don’t require a lot of intense care from the adults. Both parents tend to the young and protect their territory from other avocets and predators. If chicks are scared or cold, they will scoot between the legs of their parents for protection and warmth.
The chicks will follow the adults, learning the ins and outs of foraging for food. The long, black bills of American avocets are used for skimming, with the birds sweeping the upturned end of their bills just below the surface of water finding insects and crustaceans by touch. But the birds also feed by grabbing insects from the air or plunging their heads underwater for food.
In four or five weeks, the chicks are able to fly. As summer ends, flocks of avocets make their way back to their winter homes. The orange heads and necks of the breeding plumage will fade to gray. But bright things are ahead, with another Colorado summer to look forward to. h
Wayne D. Lewis, is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors magazine. Jeff Coldwell is a freelance photographer.