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Greater Yellowlegs

Tringa melanoleuca

Length: 14 inches Wingspan: 25 inches Seasonality: Migrant
ID Keys: Compare to Lesser Yellowlegs, longer bill, larger size, harsher call

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleucaGreater Yellowlegs are one of the two "Yellowlegs" species migrating through the state, the other being the Lesser Yellowlegs.  More wary than its smaller cousin, the Greater Yellowlegs will make loud alarm calls when spooked, with their ringing 3 or 4 note calls a primary means of differentiating them from Lesser Yellowlegs. In South Dakota, Greater Yellowlegs are migrants in both the spring and fall. They seem to tolerate cold weather better than many shorebirds, and are typically one of the first migrating shorebirds to appear in spring. Unlike many shorebirds, Greater Yellowlegs are somewhat solitary. While they perhaps will forage in the same general vicinity as other shorebirds, they're not often found in groups with their own kind in migration through the state.


 On their summer breeding grounds, Greater Yellowlegs are found in boggy areas with scattered trees and shrubs, usually nesting near a shallow pond or lake. In migration, they can be found in a very wide variety of wet habitats, including flooded fields, mud flats, shallow ponds, riverbanks, and other shorelines.


Greater Yellowlegs primarily feed on insects and other small invertebrates. They will also occasionally feed on small fish, tadpoles, or other small vertebrates. 


 Greater Yellowlegs primarily forage in shallow water, moving quite actively.  They will pluck food items from the surface, or will dip their bills into the water and swing their heads from side-to-side to search for food items.


Non-breeder in South Dakota. On their breeding grounds, Greater Yellowlegs nest on the ground, usually next to a shrub, the base of a small tree, or next to a clump of vegetation. The nest is a simple depression on the ground, lined with leaves, moss, or grasses. The female lays three or four eggs, and both parents help to incubate them. The young hatch after about 22 to 24 days. The young leave the nest as soon as they dry, typically within a few hours. They feed themselves, but are protected by the parents.


The most commonly heard vocalization is a three or four note, ringing pew-pew-pew as a bird takes flight in alarm. 


Summers in Canada and Alaska.  Winters along the U.S. coasts, the extreme southern U.S., and points south. In South Dakota, Greater Yellowlegs are just migrants, in both the spring and the fall. They tolerate the cold weather better than their smaller cousins the Lesser Yellowlegs, and sometimes appear in migration quite early in the spring.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Greater Yellowlegs sightings

Similar Species:

There's one shorebird species that's a close relative to a Greater Yellowlegs and often causes identification challenges. There are also a few other shorebird species that could potentially be confused with a Greater Yellowlegs.

Lesser Yellowlegs 10 - Tringa flavipes Lesser Yellowlegs 18 - Tringa flavipes Stilt Sandpiper - Calidris himantopus Solitary Sandpiper 5 - Tringa solitaria
Lesser Yellowlegs Lesser Yellowlegs Stilt Sandpiper Solitary Sandpiper

Conservation Status:

Systematic surveys in recent decades show no worrisome trends in overall populations. Greater Yellowlegs are still found across a very broad geographic area, and they are common in parts of that range. The IUCN considers the Greater Yellowlegs to be a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

April 22nd, 2003 -- Long Lake near Madison -- Terry L. Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Greater Yellowlegs photos.

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Greater Yellowlegs - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common migrant throughout the state.

Additional Greater Yellowlegs Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos

Greater Yellowlegs 1 - Tringa melanoleucaGreater Yellowlegs 2 - Tringa melanoleucaGreater Yellowlegs 3 - Tringa melanoleucaGreater Yellowlegs 4 - Tringa melanoleucaGreater Yellowlegs 5 - Tringa melanoleucaGreater Yellowlegs 6 - Tringa melanoleucaGreater Yellowlegs 7 - Tringa melanoleuca - With Lesser Yellowlegs