Stilts in the Piney Woods? It's a different bird

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Imagine a medium-sized bird with a long, slender black bill, black or dark brown head, back, and neck, snow white breast, neck and throat standing on bright coral pink stilt-like legs. Would you be surprised to learn that this species is called a Black-necked Stilt?

While the Black-necked Stilt, a comical, hard to forget species is rarely found "in" the piney woods, it frequents shallow marshy habitat along river valleys throughout the piney woods. Stilts are attracted like magnets to rice fields and crawfish ponds in those low lands that are often bracketed by pine woodlands. They really concentrate when these working wetlands are drained for normal management throughout the year.

There is only one kind of bird other than the stilt that has longer legs compared to total body length - the flamingo. Stilts stand about a foot tall and forage in water up to that depth but they only swim or dive when threatened by predators especially two falcons - the Merlin and the Peregrine Falcon.

If you look closely at stilts, you will notice that some have black backs and others have dark brown backs. This separates males (black) from females. Stilts make very simple nests by creating a shallow depression that may or may not be lined with bits of grass and other vegetation.

Because stilts are semi-colonial breeders, you are sure to attract several, if not more, stilts if you come too close to the nesting area. The parents will fly nearby making a conspicuous yipping call. It is best to leave the area as the eggs are so well camouflaged that it is easy to step on them.

Stilt hatchlings are able to leave their nests within two hours of hatching. The parents are mindful of their broods as they forage for food and grow.

Stilts eat just about any aquatic organism that is small enough for them to swallow or tear apart. This includes tadpoles, small fish, especially minnows, crawfish, beetles, grass shrimp, brine shrimp (in salt lakes), various aquatic insects and worms. Stilts will actually herd small fish into shallow water to trap them for easy pickings.

The call of the Black-necked Stilt is variously described as some variation of "yeek, yeek, yeek". Stilts are not quiet birds and if there are quite a few in an area, they make quite a racket. Once you recognize the call, you will know when you are in the presence of even a very few birds. They often call when flying and, despite their ungainly appearance on the ground, they are strong flyers with the long legs trailing behind them.

There are five species of stilts. The scientific name of our Black-necked Stilt is Himantopus mexicanus. The Hawaiian subspecies is called the Ae'o. It is classified as an endangered species. Some years ago, a major chemical corporation featured the Hawaiian stilt in its environmental conservation advertisements. As a subspecies, they closely resembled the species found in our region and some farmers were sure that they were providing important habitat for an endangered species. "Our" stilt is not endangered, its stable population status is a testimony to the importance of working wetland - rice/crawfish - habitat for waterbird conservation.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409
318 793-5529 -- piku1@suddenlink.net

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