BACKYARD BIRDING IN MERIDA, YUCATAN AND BEYOND- If Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz were a bird, she could have been a Wilson’s Phalarope

Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” zoologist, photographer, and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her column, published on the 7th and 21st of each month, features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and beyond.     

Contact:  All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo


Wilson’s Phalarope, Phalaropus tricolor, falaropo pico largo (Spanish)

If Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz were a bird, she could have been a Wilson’s Phalarope. First, she wore brighter colors than any of the males, just like a female phalarope displays her resplendent plumage during breeding season to the dull gray males. Nothing discouraged Dorothy from her goal to reach the male wizard. A female Wilson’s Phalarope fights others to win a male.

Dorothy met all challenges to attain her goal to return to Kansas. Almost every Wilson’s Phalarope rests and replenishes at the largest interior marsh in the U.S. in central Kansas! It migrates from saline lakes of the Andean highlands and grasslands of South America to breed in southern Canada and northern U.S. prairie marshes and lakes.

Adult  female Wilson's Phalarope in breeding plumage
Adult female Wilson’s Phalarope in breeding plumage
Adult male  in breeding plumage
Adult male in breeding plumage

Dorothy even survived a tornado with its rotating vortex. A phalarope makes its own vortex as it spins in water. This feeding behavior stirs insects, mosquito larvae, and crustaceans upward for it to pick up its food with its long, skinny bill. According to many resources, it feeds on the water’s surface. I saw its head plunge into the water to feed several times. In addition, it plucks its prey along the shore or while it swims. It’s a swimming shorebird!

Wilson's Phalarope female at shore
Wilson’s Phalarope female at shore
Male in search of food along shore
Male in search of food along shore
Female plunges head into water to feed while swimming
Female plunges head into water to feed while swimming

Anyway, a flock may twirl at the same time close together. Someone named this grouping a swirl, a twirl, a whirl, or a whirligig. I would call it a whiriligiggle.

Female eats from upwelling of her spinning vortex
Female eats from upwelling of her spinning vortex

I’ll stop with the Dorothy similarities now.

In non-breeding season both sexes have yellow legs and are gray above and white below. During the breeding period, both genders have black legs, but only the female develops the black, chestnut, gray and white plumage. The breeding male is gray and white with a brownish neck. The 9-inch female phalarope is larger than the male and aggressively fights other females to select a male to mate. She guards her mate from other females and helps him select a nest site. He scrapes out a nest for her where she lays three to four eggs. Then she departs! (Guess the male had a fallow hope.)

She may select another male or several to mate with and then after her egg laying, leaves again. Each male incubates the eggs for 17 – 21 days. Perhaps the dull-colored male doesn’t attract predators while sitting on the nest. After the eggs hatch, only the male raises the chicks.

Female on left and male Wilson's Phalarope on right
Female on left and male Wilson’s Phalarope on right

Hmmm, here is a quick summary. Unlike most bird species, the female Wilson’s Phalarope is larger and more brightly colored than the male, fights for and selects her mate, defends it, lays eggs, and doesn’t help with incubation or rearing the chicks. After that, she may mate again with several males and leaves each one to hatch the eggs and care for the chicks.

Maybe she is the wizard of odds.

American ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, gave the common name to the Wilson’s Phalarope. (Wonder where he got that name?) Phalarope means “coot foot” in Greek. This photo of the American Coot shows its lobed toes like those of a phalarope. If I photographed any phalarope toes, I’d call it “photoes”. Anyway, you get the picture; no ruby slippers here.

American Coot with lobed toes (C) CHERIE PITTILLO
American Coot with lobed toes (C) CHERIE PITTILLO

Several references stated this species is mostly silent but its call sounds like “work, work.” In this recording, it sounds to me like a dog bark.


This is an uncommon visitor to Merida and to the peninsula, but for four days, ten of these elegant shorebirds twirled, floated, darted along the shore, jabbed for food, and appeared to expend more energy than what they caught at Kai Lu um Park. Here is the link to part one:

Female Wilson's Phalarope

Female Wilson’s Phalarope

Male Wilson's Phalarope at shore
Male Wilson’s Phalarope at shore




DISCLAIMER: References do not agree on information about this species. Here are my resources: Sal a Pajarear Yucatan Guia de Aves, The Sibley Guide to Birds, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th Edition, Birds and Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, Barbara MacKinnon de Montes via email,, a website from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and these hyperlinks:, px,,




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