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Dunlin: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

The dunlin is a small yet remarkable wader bird that captivates birdwatchers and ecologists alike with its elegant appearance and fascinating behaviors.

This article delves into the world of the dunlin, offering insights into its classification, habitat, lifestyle, and conservation status. Known for their impressive migratory patterns and adaptability to diverse habitats, dunlins play a significant role in the ecosystems they inhabit.

Whether you’re a seasoned birder or new to the avian world, this fact sheet will provide a thorough understanding of the dunlin.

The Dunlin at a Glance


Class:Aves (Birds)
Species:C. alpina

Essential Information

Average Size:Length: 6.3–8.7 inches (16–22 cm); Wingspan: 13–16 inches (35–41 cm)
Average Weight:1.4–2.1 ounces (40–60 grams)
Average Lifespan:Around 10 years
Geographical Range:Circumpolar in the Arctic during breeding; coasts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America in winter
Conservation Status:Least Concern (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

The dunlin, Calidris alpina, is known for having several subspecies, each adapting to different environments within the species’ extensive range. The subspecies generally differ in size, plumage coloration, and breeding locations.

  • Calidris alpina alpina: Breeds in northern Europe and Asia. It has a slightly lighter plumage compared to other subspecies.
  • Calidris alpina arctica: Found in Greenland and Iceland, this subspecies is darker with a more compact body.
  • Calidris alpina pacifica: Breeds in eastern Siberia and Alaska. Notable for its slightly larger size and longer bill.
  • Calidris alpina hudsonia: Located in North America, this subspecies has a paler plumage, especially in winter.
  • Calidris alpina schinzii: Breeds in western Europe, characterized by a more rufous plumage during the breeding season.

Each subspecies exhibits adaptations that optimize survival in their specific environments, from variations in plumage that provide camouflage against predators to differences in size that may relate to climatic conditions and available resources.



Dunlins are small and agile shorebirds with a distinctive appearance. They measure approximately 6.3 to 8.7 inches (16 to 22 cm) in length with a wingspan of 13 to 16 inches (35 to 41 cm). The average weight of an adult dunlin is between 1.4 and 2.1 ounces (40 to 60 grams).

Physically, dunlins are noted for their slightly down-curved bills and relatively long legs, which aid in their foraging habits. Their plumage varies seasonally; during the breeding season, they exhibit a striking black belly patch and a reddish-brown back, while in the winter, their coloration shifts to a more subdued gray-brown.

Sexual dimorphism in dunlins is relatively minimal, but males generally have slightly brighter breeding plumage and may be marginally larger than females.

Habitat and Distribution

Dunlins have a broad geographical range, displaying remarkable adaptability. They breed in the Arctic tundra across North America, Europe, and Asia, and migrate to coastal regions during the non-breeding season. Their wintering habitats include mudflats, estuaries, marshes, and beaches.

The dunlin’s preference for a variety of habitats, from the open Arctic tundra to the dynamic coastal zones, demonstrates their ecological versatility. This adaptability is a key factor in their widespread distribution and success as a species.



Dunlins are known for their distinct behaviors, which vary across different stages of their lifecycle. Dunlins are primarily diurnal, actively foraging during the day. During migration and in their wintering grounds, they can also be seen foraging at night, especially during low tides.

Outside of the breeding season, dunlins are highly gregarious and can be found in large flocks, sometimes numbering in the thousands. These flocks exhibit impressive coordinated flight patterns. During breeding, however, they become more territorial and solitary.

Dunlins communicate through a range of vocalizations, especially during the breeding season. Their calls include a distinctive “kreeep” used for alarm and a more complex song during courtship.

One of the most notable behaviors of the dunlin is its long-distance migration. They undertake extensive migratory journeys twice a year, traveling thousands of miles between their breeding and wintering grounds.

These behaviors, particularly their migratory patterns and social flocking, make the dunlin a fascinating subject for birdwatchers and ornithologists, showcasing the complexity and adaptability of avian life.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Dunlins primarily have an omnivorous diet but lean heavily towards insectivory and carnivory. During the breeding season in the Arctic tundra, their diet consists mainly of insects, small invertebrates, and occasionally plant material. In their wintering grounds along coastlines, they feed extensively on mollusks, crustaceans, worms, and small fish.

Dunlins are active foragers, often seen running along the water’s edge, probing the mud with their long bills to extract prey. Their feeding is closely tied to the tidal cycle in coastal areas, where they take advantage of receding waters to access food sources.


Dunlins face a variety of predators throughout their life cycle, with threats differing between their breeding and wintering habitats.

  • Breeding Grounds: In the Arctic, their eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predation by foxes, skuas, and birds of prey.
  • Wintering Grounds: While in coastal areas, they must be wary of larger birds such as peregrine falcons and merlins.

Their social behavior in flocks provides some safety in numbers, and their cryptic plumage helps them blend into their surroundings, reducing the risk of predation.


Reproduction and Life Cycle

The reproductive behavior of dunlins is closely tied to their migratory patterns. They breed in the Arctic tundra during the short Arctic summer, taking advantage of the brief burst of food availability.

Dunlins typically form monogamous pairs for the breeding season. Males perform elaborate courtship displays, including aerial acrobatics and vocalizations, to attract females.

The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground, lined with vegetation. Females usually lay 3 to 4 eggs, which are camouflaged to blend in with the tundra.

Both parents share incubation duties, and the chicks are precocial, meaning they are relatively mature and mobile shortly after hatching. The young are cared for by both parents but quickly become independent.

The incubation period for the eggs is about 21 to 22 days. After breeding, dunlins return to their wintering grounds, where they spend the majority of the year before the next breeding season.

The cyclical nature of their life, marked by long migrations, breeding, and wintering, highlights the resilience and adaptability of this species.

Conservation and Threats

The conservation status of the dunlin is currently listed as “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, like many migratory bird species, they face certain threats that could impact their populations.

Habitat loss and degradation, particularly in their breeding and wintering grounds, pose significant risks. Coastal development, pollution, and climate change are among the key factors affecting their habitats.

Conservation strategies for dunlins include protecting critical habitats, especially breeding and wintering sites, and implementing regulations to mitigate the impact of coastal development. Monitoring programs are also in place to track population trends and identify emerging threats.

Fun Facts

  1. Aerodynamic Acrobats: During migration, dunlins can fly at speeds of up to 110 kilometers per hour (68 mph), showcasing remarkable endurance and speed.
  2. Tidal Experts: Dunlins have an exceptional ability to synchronize their feeding patterns with tidal cycles, exploiting the ebb and flow to access food resources.
  3. Migratory Marvels: Some dunlin populations undertake migrations covering thousands of miles, traveling from the Arctic to as far south as Africa and South America.
  4. Camouflage Masters: The plumage of dunlins provides excellent camouflage in their natural habitats, a vital adaptation for evading predators.
  5. Social Birds: In winter, dunlins form large, tightly coordinated flocks, a behavior that offers protection against predators and is a spectacle for birdwatchers.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do dunlins adapt to different seasons?

Dunlins undergo seasonal plumage changes, with a distinctive black belly patch and rufous back during breeding season, and a duller gray-brown color in winter.

Where do dunlins breed?

Dunlins breed in the Arctic tundra across North America, Europe, and Asia.

What is the lifespan of a dunlin?

Dunlins typically live for around 10 years.

How do dunlins contribute to their ecosystem?

By feeding on insects and other invertebrates, dunlins help control pest populations and play a role in nutrient cycling in their habitats.

Are dunlins endangered?

Currently, dunlins are not considered endangered and are classified as Least Concern, but they do face threats from habitat loss and climate change.

How can people help in the conservation of dunlins?

Support and involvement in habitat conservation efforts, responsible coastal development, and reducing pollution can significantly contribute to the conservation of dunlins and their habitats.

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