Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

The Bird with Outrageous Legs….

I know that the bird of the month should be the beautiful Pinecraft Wilson’s Warbler……. or the handsome Dickcissel….. or even perhaps those plucky little Scaly-breasted Munias. What a triple treat we’ve had from those very obliging long time stayers. However my heart lifts when I see those amazing Black-necked Stilts, and I must admit the Stilt is one of my favorite birds. So here we go…….

The Black-necked Stilt is one of five species of Stilt in the world, its European or Old World counterpart being the Black-winged Stilt, which it is almost identical to, apart from the white spot above the eye. Another species, the Hawaiian Stilt is rare and considered in danger of extinction.

The Black-necked Stilt is a striking black and white bird with slim wings and a needle-like bill. It has long thin legs which are a bright bubblegum pink. Its legs seem impossibly long in proportion to the rest of its body. Its field features are so unique it certainly can’t be mistaken for any other wading bird. I’ve always been fascinated by its unique appearance, and since reading Gilbert White’s ‘Natural History of Selbourne’ many years ago I never see one without remembering what he said.

Gilbert White was a pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist of the 18th Century. In fact he was probably the first real British naturalist, and

learnt by careful observation and documentation of what he saw in the field. One day someone brought him a specimen of a Black-winged Stilt. Having studied it, he was amazed by the bird’s legs. Here’s what he said, ‘I found the length of the legs to be so extraordinary, that, at first sight, one might have supposed the shanks had been fastened on to impose on the credulity of the beholder; they were legs of a caricatura.’

Later, having weighed and measured the bird, he had this to add, ‘These birds exhibit, weight for inches, incomparably the greatest length of legs of any known bird…. It must be a matter of great curiosity to see the Stilt move, to observe how it can wield such a length of lever with such feeble muscles as the thighs seem to be furnished with…but what adds to the wonder is that it has no back toe.’

Gilbert just couldn’t figure out the physics of how the bird was able to move

Gilbert just couldn’t figure out the physics of how the bird was able to move such long legs with such small thigh muscles. I think I have to agree with Gilbert on this point, and ask myself, how does this bird manage to hold it’s body up when it walks and how does it manage to keep its balance? And then you see a Stilt standing on one leg without a wobble, and you realize just how graceful and elegant these birds can be.

The Latin name of the bird Himantopus means ‘strap foot’, himas/himantos meaning strap or thong, and pus/pous meaning foot. It’s not totally clear what this means, but it seems to be an awkward metaphor implying that the legs are slender and pliant, as if cut out of leather. Gilbert clearly wasn’t the only one curious about the bird’s legs.

The Black-necked Stilt is found around the edges of shallow water in open country, and is clearly in its element at the Celery Fields. For nesting it needs open ground near water. Undisturbed this bird wades through its shallow wetland habitats and flooded fields with careful grace. However, when disturbed at nesting time all semblance of grace disappears and then it yaps incessantly, diving at predators to protect its young. If you are dive- bombed by a Black-necked Stilt then you are too close to a nest.

It is such a privilege and joy to have this bird with us. Let’s enjoy it while we

can. And try and figure out those legs.

Glynnis Thomas