Ruddy Turnstone
(Arenaria interpres)
Introduction by Nate Swick, ABA Blog editor

Ruddy Turnstones, as depicted by our 2017 Bird of the Year artist Sophie Webb.

Travel to a beach just about anywhere in the world and you’re likely to see Ruddy Turnstones. That’s a great thing, because who would want to miss the striking shorebirds with the harlequin plumage and the dinky upturned bill? In a family of birds noted for their subtlety, Ruddy Turnstone is flashy. Among those known for their timidity, it is brazen. And while it is one of only a few species of birds to be found on the six non-ice-covered continents, it gathers in impressive numbers along the Delaware Bay in the spring, in in the ABA’s new home state of Delaware, to gorge on Horseshoe Crab eggs. It is a true bird of the world but with part of its heart in Delaware. When you think about it, that’s not a bad metaphor for our organization.

The choice of Ruddy Turnstone for Bird of the Year marks a return to the idea that our featured bird should be one that ABA members are likely to encounter with some regularity. Ruddy Turnstones are incredibly flexible, as shorebirds go, and their little railroad spike of a bill is useful not only for the namesake flipping of beach pebbles, but also probing, routing, digging, and pecking along both sandy or rocky shorelines the world over.

So yes, this is a bird that many birders, and even non-birders, are quite familiar with. But a focus on this particular shorebird does shine a light on a couple of important conservation issues.

First, Ruddy Turnstone is one of a number of shorebird species that congregates on the Delaware Bay in spring to take advantage of the Horseshoe Crab spawn. Turnstones, along with the famously threatened Red Knot, rely on this biological and gastronomical plenty to refuel on their long journey to their nesting territories in the arctic. Lightly regulated Horseshoe Crab takes in the Delaware Bay threatened populations of these migratory birds and in response New Jersey placed a moratorium on crab harvesting and Delaware restricted it only to males, two moves that have been beneficial not only to the crab populations in the bay, but to the birds that depend on them.

Second, Ruddy Turnstones exemplify threats due to climate change on both ends of their range. As arctic nesting species they, along with many other shorebirds, time their migration to reach their nesting grounds near the height of the brief arctic summer, when productivity is at its peak. If that productive period comes earlier, the birds can miss it, which in turn impact nesting success of a great suite of birds. Additionally, sea level rise threatens the beachfront habitats of Ruddy Turnstones which, despite their great flexibility, are not immune to  such potentially drastic changes.

But despite these challenges, Ruddy Turnstones are still a much beloved sight on the coasts of the ABA Area, and often inland as well. We look forward to sharing this bird with the ABA community in 2017.

 Fun Facts About Ruddy Turnstone

  • Ruddy Turnstone is one of the most northerly breeding species of shorebirds and, despite its prevalence on beaches throughout the ABA Area in winter, it’s summer breeding behavior is still relatively poorly known. They are cosmopolitan, and found throughout the world. The North American breeding population represents about 60% of the world’s population of Ruddy Turnstones.

  • Ruddy Turnstone consists of two subspecies, both of which occur in North America. A. i. interpres breeds from high-arctic Canada across Greenland, and arctic Eurasia. They primarily winter in the Old World. A. i. morinella breeds from northeast Alaska east through southern islands of Canadian Arctic Archipelago and winters along both coasts of North America south to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.
  • After arriving on nesting territory, males tend to return to sites where they have nested in the past. They attract females with elaborate courtship displays involving loud calls and body twists. Courtship concludes when female makes a simple scrape on the ground on the male’s territory, where she lays up to five eggs. Males will incubate, but most work is done by the female.

The name 

Originally designated Tringa interpres, the turnstones were quickly determined to be different than other shorebirds, at which the genus was changed to Arenaria in 1780. The scientific name is from the Latin for sand – arena – and the genus is roughly translated as “sand-dwelling”, an odd name for a bird that is as much at home on rocky coastlines as sandy beaches.

The specific name interpres means messenger.


  • Adult Ruddy Turnstones in breeding plumage are hard to miss, with striking black and white pattern on head and neck, rusty back and wings, white underparts, and bright orange legs and feet. In flight, has white tail with black terminal band, oblong white patch on back, bold white patches in wings.
  • Basic plumage birds are similar to those in breeding plumage, but with subdued colors and patterns.
  • Typical call is a bubbly chatter.

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