Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus)

The willet was once hunted for food, and as a consequence, its populations in northeastern North America were greatly depleted. But since hunting has ceased, its populations are recovering and spreading in Canada and the eastern United States, largely due to its ability to survive in landscapes modified by agriculture.


The willet is a large shorebird, 35-43 cm in length- the size of a small crow. It has long, bluish legs and a long, relatively heavy bill. Its upper parts are mottled light brown, and its underparts are pale, lightly barred with brown during the breeding season and unbarred in the winter. In flight, it shows a striking pattern of three broad, black and white bands on its primary feathers and on the underside of its wings. The willet's typical call is a conspicuous ‘pill-will-willet!’, most commonly heard in flight.


The willet breeds in the marshes and sloughs of the North American prairies, and along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Mexico, although its distribution is very patchy at the northern end of its range.


Willets nest in grassy areas near the upper edges of beaches or in the drier portions of marshes. Its nests are depressions lined with grasses or small sticks. The eggs are laid in sets of 4, and are greenish or yellowish-gray with irregular spots and blotches of browns and grays.

The willet's diet consists of crustaceans, aquatic insects, worms, mollusks, and the occasional small fish. When feeding, it probes its bill into the soil, and also picks food items from the surface of the ground. This species sometimes engages in a feeding technique called "mowing", in which a bird walks forward, rapidly opening and shutting its bill, and moving its head up and down rapidly. Willets may also occasionally be seen wading belly-deep, or swimming, while they forage.