Physical Description

  • Breeding adult: large, stocky shorebird with mottled brown feathers, long light brown legs, and a thick straight bill that is beige to black in coloration. Large black/dark-brown and white stripes on spread wings, with brown mottling on back and lighter mottling on belly.
  • Non-breeding adult: pale grayish brown overall with few markings and no mottling. Light buff to white bellies.\
  • Juvenile: white underbellies, light brown back and wings, with larger mottling pattern than adults. Brown heads. Juveniles in East are browner and smaller than juveniles in West.


  • From Canada to Venezuela; two populations in North America.
  • Breeding: breeding occurs in the Great Plains for Western willets, and on northeastern shores in April-May for Eastern willets.
  • Migrating: migrate through the central United States and Baja California. Migrate at night. Western birds leave coastal wintering grounds in March-May, and Eastern birds move North starting in March.
  • Non-breeding: Along coast of California and Mexico in winter.
  • Non-migrating: year-round in Gulf Coast, southeastern US Coast, and Caribbean.


  • Feed along beaches, mudflats, saltwater marshes, and rocky shores.
  • Western willets breed in freshwater compared to Eastern willets.


  • A pair searches for nest sites together, often with the male making trial scrapes in the ground for the female to evaluate.
  • The male makes the scrape in the ground and the female then fills it in with fine grasses and pebbles.
  • The mother lays 4 eggs between 1.9 and 2.4 inches long. The eggs are greenish or brownish with bold, irregular dark brown spots on them.
  • Although both parents incubate the eggs, only the males watch the eggs at night.
  • The female leaves the nest almost two weeks before the male, leaving him to finish raising the chicks.
  • The chicks are born mobile, covered in down, with eyes open. They are able to peck at vegetation immediately after hatching.


  • Aquatic beetles, spiders, fish.
  • Small crabs, worms, clams, snails, and invertebrates.
  • Eastern willets eat fiddler and mole crabs.


  • Hawks, herring gulls, snakes, and otters prey on adult willets.
  • Crows, ravens, snakes, foxes, and raccoons prey on willet eggs and chicks.

Interesting Facts

  • The name willet comes from the “pill-will-willet” sound of their call. 
  • Like Killdeer, willets will pretend to have a broken wing to lure predators away from their nest to protect their eggs and nest..

Hear a Willet’s alarm call

Hear a Willet’s song

Sources:;; Chesapeake Bay Program; Audubon Field Guide

Photo: Paula Selby