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Short-billed Dowitcher
Limnodromus griseus
Order
CHARADRIIFORMES
– Family
SCOLOPACIDAE
Authors: Jehl, Jr., Joseph R., Joanna Klima, and Ross E. Harris

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Introduction

Adult Short-billed Dowitcher, breeding plumage
Figure 1. Distribution of the Short-billed Dowitcher

The long-billed, medium-sized Short-billed Dowitcher is a common and conspicuous migrant along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. Its breeding grounds are restricted to North America, extending nearly from coast to coast across boreal and subarctic regions of Canada and Alaska. In migration, this species prefers open coastal mud flats and saline habitats, unlike the slightly larger and more brightly colored Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus), which tends to use freshwater pools inland.

In the late nineteenth century the Short-billed Dowitcher was so abundant as to be a prime quarry of market hunters. Nevertheless, it was—and long remained—one of the least understood shorebirds, largely because western populations were continually confused with the Long-billed. The situation was rectified when Frank Pitelka (1950) confirmed and extended William Rowan’s (1932) thesis that there were 2 species of New World dowitchers and that the Short-billed was polytypic. Even so, identifying dowitchers is still difficult enough that much information from areas where the 2 species occur together falls in the penumbra of “dowitcher sp.”

The Short-billed was also poorly known because its main breeding grounds are in the difficult-to-access, mosquito- and black fly–ridden muskegs of Canada. As a result, the species’ nest and eggs avoided detection until 1906, in northern Alberta (Macoun and Macoun 1909), and that knowledge was long overlooked, because it was ascribed to Long-billed instead of the then-undescribed interior race of the Short-billed, L. griseus hendersoni (Rowan 1932).

The provenance of the dull-colored eastern dowitcher, L. g. griseus, remained enigmatic. Although deduced by elimination to lie east of Hudson Bay in the interior of Labrador (Cooke 1910; see also Forbush 1912), it was not until 1957–1958 that R. Clement, H. Ouellet, and R. McNeil located recently fledged young in central Quebec (Todd [1963] provides a good review of this interesting chapter in North American ornithology), and the nest and eggs went undiscovered for 2 decades more (Harris 1989). Even though direct observations on nesting biology were lacking, information from migrants (Jehl 1963) showed that the females participated little, if at all, in raising the young. That finding was confirmed by studies on the breeding grounds at Churchill, Manitoba, in 1964–1965 (Jehl unpubl.) and in Quebec in 1978–1980 (Harris 1989). Breeding studies also showed (contra Gilliard 1958, Thompson 1964) that both sexes share incubation duties. Nevertheless, information on breeding biology was slow to accumulate because “the nests . . . must be about the hardest of all shore-birds to find” (Rowan 1927: 220).

Other dowitcher conundrums persist, including the nature of its relationships to other waders and even the origin of the name. Early American ornithologists like John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson knew it as the Red-breasted Snipe, while gunners called it Brownback. The supplanting by “dowitcher” seems to have been driven by Atlantic coast usage during the peak of the hunting era. Poynting (1895–1896) implied that the name was common on Long Island—a stronghold for Dutch and German immigrants. Coues (1903: 808) wrote that “dowitcher” or “dowitch” is derived from “Deutscher” or “Duitsch”, which referred to the “German” or “Dutch” snipe, in distinction to “English Snipe” (= Gallinago gallinago).

Although Short-billed Dowitchers are easily observed in migration, the species has not received much study. Most of our knowledge about its migratory biology is based on studies on the Atlantic coast; west-coast birds have been largely ignored, and the scanty documentation of its breeding biology comes from only 4 areas: Alberta (e.g., Rowan 1927; Randall 1930, 1961); Churchill area of Manitoba (Taverner and Sutton 1934, Shortt and Waller 1937, Jehl and Hussell 1966a, Jehl and Smith 1970, JRJ unpubl.); southern Alaska (Hurley 1932, Shortt 1939); and Schefferville, Quebec (Todd 1963, Harris 1989).