Lesser Yellowlegs

For inexperienced eyes, there aren’t many dissimilarities between the two species of Yellowlegs. A newbie birdwatcher might suffer from confusion for days while looking at Lesser Yellowlegs and Greater Yellowlegs side by side. They might even question why the species has been divided into two in the first place. If you observe them long enough, the difference in their personality becomes clearer than crystal. 

In the case of the Lesser Yellowlegs, for one, they move around in large flocks. They also prefer ponds and have an overall tame personality. A more delicate constitution means they aren’t seen wintering extreme north as Greater Yellowlegs are. 

Today, we’ll learn about: 

  • Lesser Yellowlegs color patterns, songs, and size
  • Lesser Yellowlegs behavior, habitat, and diet
  • Lesser Yellowlegs life cycle, nesting, and migration range


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Lesser Yellowlegs Color Pattern

The first thing one notices about Lesser Yellowlegs is, of course, their legs. Compared to an otherwise white and brown plumage, the adult Yellowlegs have well, yellow legs. Their bill is black in color as opposed to matching the color of their legs. Then, there is the color of their plumage. Their chest, belly, and underparts are white in color. They also have a white neckband and a bit of white around their eyes. 

Otherwise, you will find brown streaks over the white chest. They also have darker brown streaks on the flanks. The intensity of the chest varies depending on the bird. 

On their back and the top of their head, they have a mix of brown, white, and black colors adorning them. These are checkered streaks nodding off to a dark brown tail. 

For the most part, nonbreeding Lesser Yellowlegs look the same as adult breeding ones. Yellowlegs and a black bill are a given. Even the white plumage is the same with brown and black streaks on them. However, the deepness of the streaks on the neck of non-breeding ones is less. So, you get this faded look, as if someone has smudged it on their body instead of having definitive streaks. 

Description And Identification

Shorebirds as they are, Lesser Yellowlegs are anywhere water is. This means freshwater marshes, salt marshes, ponds, mudflats, you can find them in any of these places in the U.S. during migration. As they are basically migrating visitors here, you need to search for them during the right season. In the right season, you will find them along with water bodies, where the clearings are. 

When you want to find them, you need to memorize their songs first. You can’t get too close to them, as they don’t appreciate human intruders. From a distance, you have to hear their song. Or you can focus on their pill e wee calls. You can focus on the yodeling noises they make. You can also be on the lookout for their whistling noises. 

Other than that, you can identify them by their plumage. The exact plumage pattern is only seen in another bird species. And yes, it is only their cousin species, the Greater Yellowlegs. Not many shorebirds have such bright yellow legs accompanied by a white plumage that has deep black and brown streaks on it. This also means that you might find yourself confused between the two species easily. 

Indeed, finding Lesser Yellowlegs isn’t hard. The difficult part is knowing with certainty whether you are looking at Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs. There are some clear differences that can help your confusion though. For example, you are less likely to find Lesser Yellowlegs around tidal bodies. The ones you find near ponds are most definitely Lesser Yellowlegs. Their personality isn’t that sharp either. They aren’t loud until necessary and prefer maintaining a low profile. They also prefer staying in large flocks instead of going off on their own. Most of all, if you move far north, the Yellowlegs you see there has to be Greater. The Lesser ones don’t appreciate the cold weather much. 

When you want to see them, remember to take all your birding gear with you. You can’t get too close to them. You need to see them from a distance and binoculars and cameras are extremely helpful in this case. 

Lesser Yellowleg Song 

What constitutes as songs for Lesser Yellowlegs is a series of whistling, short notes. These notes are followed by jumbled wavers. Overall, the songs have this ringing, high-pitched quality to them that can be almost annoying. 

For their calls, the common and most known ones are either the double note “tu tu” or the single whistle of “tu”. When the male Lesser Yellowlegs is performing a courtship display, the male Lesser Yellowlegs lets out this call that people have jokingly called their version of yodeling. Basically, they make this pill e wee sound. Unless they are on their breeding ground, you don’t get to hear this call much. 

Lesser Yellowleg Size

Yellowlegs are made of elegance and Lesser Yellowlegs are no different. They are this slender beauty, the kind you think of when you imagine shorebirds. Medium-sized as they are, they have a long neck and leg. The bill, straight and thin, is the ideal long shape. In fact, the bill is straighter and shorter compared to that of Greater Yellowlegs. It is also just the slightest bit longer than the head of Lesser Yellowlegs. 

If you can’t already guess, Lesser Yellowlegs are smaller than Greater Yellowlegs. They are bigger than Dunlin though. Their length amounts to about 23 to 27 cm. The weight range is guessed to be 79 g to 90 g. Their wings are beautiful when spread out and have a wingspan of about 59 to 64 cm. 

Lesser Yellowleg Behavior

Most of their foraging takes place on shallow water grounds. They take the easy way out and pluck out items that are on the water. Sometimes, they will catch prey that is just below the surface. Sometimes, they will place their bill on the water and then swing their head around. This splashes the water in all directions, forcing the underwater prey to come out and into the open, where Lesser Yellowlegs can catch them in one go. 

What Lesser Yellowlegs Eat

If you are wondering what they can find on shallow water grounds, crustaceans, fishes, and insects are certainly available in satisfying quantities. A lot of aquatic insects end up in their stomachs, including crane fly larvae, dragonfly nymphs, beetles, and water boatmen. Terrestrial insects are also included in this category. Small fish, snails, and crustaceans are also among the food they enjoy nibbling on. In summer, the largest part of theirs happens to be insects. 

Where Lesser Yellowlegs Live And Habitat

Ponds, mudflats, marshes, and shores, are all habitats frequented by Lesser Yellowlegs. The open boreal woods in summer are also a favorite of Yellowlegs. During migration, you can see lots of them all over the U.S. anywhere with fresh salt marshes, coastal estuaries, and at the edge of ponds and lakes, Lesser Yellowlegs are present. The more freshwater habitat you can find, the greater are the chances of spotting them. If you look for them where Greater Yellowlegs are, you can find them there too. Except for Greater Yellowlegs like tidal flats, which isn’t the case for Lesser ones. 

In the northern forests, breeding takes place around ponds and clearings that had been burned at one point. 

Range and Migration

Most of the breeding region for Lesser Yellowlegs is the pond area clearings found in the boreal forests. This encompasses Quebec to Alaska. Around these areas, they choose the ground to nest on. Usually, the nest is in an open area. Even though they stay near water, the nest itself is safe from any water splashing. 

Migration sees them traveling to the United States where the Gulf coast is and to the Caribbeans. A good portion of them also shows up in South America, to its south. In western Europe, they show up as vagrants regularly. Just between the period from August to October, about 5 birds showed up in Great Britain. Some of these individuals even end up overwintering. 

Lesser Yellowleg Life Cycle

Lesser Yellowlegs lays about 4 eggs in a brood. At times, it can be 3. The color of the egg can range from yellow to a grayer shade. The botching job is done with brown. It is assumed both parents help in the incubation process, though not enough research has been done for someone to say it with certainty. This egg warming period takes about 22 to 23 days. 

Not long after the eggs hatch, the young can start strutting out of the nest. The parents tend to their young after they leave the nest but the food gathering part has to be done by the young themselves. After 18 to 20 days since their birth, this species becomes capable of flying. 


Not much solid information has been gathered about the nesting behavior of this species. Most everyone knows is that when they are on their breeding territory, the male does this display flight. In this display, they fly up and then fall swiftly down. All the while, a song can be heard from them. This song reaches a considerable distance from their location, which is one of the ways you can find them. The song has a ringing, disturbing quality to it. 

Adult Lesser Yellowlegs are known to find dead trees and perch on them. They call while they are on a perch, especially if they feel or see any human intruding upon what they have decided as their territory. 

For the nest, they keep it on the ground out in the open. They choose dry places that are a considerable distance away from the water, even though they build the nest itself close to water bodies. Often, they place it beside a log, brush pile, or stump that has been burned. On the ground, the nest site is basically a narrow depression. Grass, leaves, etc are used to line it up. 

Anatomy of a Lesser Yellowleg

Elegance is visible in their appearance and the way they walk, Lesser Yellowlegs have extremely long bills. If you compare it to the size of their head, the bill is longer than you can predict. It is also thin and straight and an excellent friend when they want to catch small fish underwater. Their overall body shape is slender with a flat chest and belly. They have a slightly crooked posture with their long legs bending them forward. They have long legs with thin, long feet. 

Then, there are the wings. It’s long and broad and usually kept close to their body. They also have large eyes if you compare them to the size of their head. Basically, you can have a nice time looking at Lesser Yellowlegs for long. They have a small tail that most people don’t even notice exists. 

Final Thoughts

Thankfully the overall number of Lesser Yellowlegs is on a fair level. If you were to search for one, you have a good chance of finding them. In the United States or for anyone living in the south of Canada, the best time for finding this species is during migration season. You can check out online maps to make notes on how they move during this time. 

Mudflats and narrow marshes are where they frequent the most. In the spring and fall seasons, you want to search for them in fields that have been flooded with water. Then, there are those reservoirs, at the tail ends where you can see exposed mudflats rich in nutrients. In general, shorebirds like Lesser Yellowlegs prefer wet weather. What would be otherwise dry vegetation such as farms or pastures can have narrow pool areas on them during damp seasons. Naturally, those are the optimal areas to search in when you want to see Lesser Yellowlegs. 

They are easy to spot but that doesn’t mean you should skip out on your birding gears. Bring your camera, binocular, and other such important equipment with you to commemorate the occasion. 


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Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Lesser Yellowlegs  

The most common types of bird-watching binoculars for viewing Lesser Yellowlegs are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

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Lesser Yellowlegs Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Lesser Yellowlegs. Here is the sticker pack we sell with a Lesser Yellowlegs sticker.

Bird Feeders For Lesser Yellowlegs

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Best Bird Houses For Lesser Yellowleg

There are many types of birdhouses. Building a birdhouse is always fun but can be frustrating. These 4 birdhouses have become our favorites. Getting a birdhouse for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. We spent a little extra money on these birdhouses but they have been worth the higher price and look great.

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