Male. Note: bill slightly less curved than female.
  • Male. Note: bill slightly less curved than female.

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American Avocet

Recurvirostra americana
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
Stilts and avocets make up a small, but worldwide family. These medium to large shorebirds are delicate and graceful looking, with long necks, small heads, and long, thin legs and bills. They are typically found in wetland areas, and their long legs allow them access to deeper water than many other shorebirds. Stilts have straight bills, while avocets' bills are up-curved. The stilts and avocets are unusual among the shorebirds in that they are colony nesters. They typically lay four well-camouflaged eggs in a simple scrape on the ground. Both parents incubate and care for the chicks, although the young feed themselves.
Fairly common summer east. Rare west.
  • Sound To Sage

General Description

The American Avocet is a large shorebird with a bold black and white pattern on its back, long bluish legs, and a long, thin, upwardly curved bill. The bill of the female is shorter and slightly more upturned than that of the male. The underparts of males and females are white, and breeding adults have buffy-orange plumage on the head and neck. Heads and necks are gray to whitish in non-breeding adults (September to February) and pale pinkish-orange in juveniles.


American Avocets occupy shallow freshwater habitat in open country. They typically feed in open water 10-20 centimeters deep, but they also swim regularly in water too deep for wading. Highly productive alkaline ponds and lakes are ideal for foraging.


American Avocets often forage by sweeping their long bills from side to side with the tip of the bill, which is extremely sensitive to touch, barely submerged in water. They also feed visually by capturing prey from the surface of mud or water, by plunging their heads into water, and by snatching insects from the air. American Avocets are semi-colonial breeders. They remain monogamous within a breeding season. They defend their young vigorously with an array of alarm calls and distraction displays, and will also dive-bomb predators if eggs or young are directly threatened.


Small crustaceans and insects make up the majority of their diet. American Avocets also occasionally eat small fish and seeds.


Most pairing takes place before or during migration. Both sexes select the nest site, on bare or sparsely vegetated open ground near water, or islands when available. Either sex may scrape out the nest depression while the other one watches. The pair adds lining such as grass, pebbles, and feathers throughout incubation. The female usually lays four eggs, and both sexes incubate. Another female will sometimes lay 1-4 additional eggs in the same nest, however these 'dump nests' rarely succeed. Chicks are precocial and able to leave the nest within 1-2 hours of hatching. The young form flocks with other fledglings and adults when leaving the nesting area after breeding season. American Avocets normally raise one brood per season.

Migration Status

Migrants typically arrive on Washington breeding grounds by early April and leave by mid-September. They are rare west of the Cascades. American Avocets winter on the coasts of the southern United States and western Mexico.

Conservation Status

Wetland losses have led to population declines from historic levels. Selenium contamination of wetlands due to irrigation drain water has been associated with embryo deformities and decreased hatching of young. Wetland conservation and mitigation efforts are under way, and populations are now thought to be stable or increasing.

When and Where to Find in Washington

American Avocets are locally common in freshwater ponds and wetlands of the Columbia Basin in central Washington. Recently a few pairs have nested, or attempted to nest, in western Washington, in the lowlands of Clark County and at Crockett Lake on Whidbey Island.

Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest Coast
Puget Trough
North Cascades
West Cascades
East Cascades
Okanogan UFFFFU
Canadian Rockies
Blue Mountains R RR
Columbia Plateau UCCCCCUR

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern