The red phalarope is a sea bird, about six to ten inches in length, which nests in the high Arctic and is only very rarely seen inland.

Phalaropes are thought to be relatives of sandpipers and other similar shorebirds, and are classed with them in the family Scolopacidae; however, their style of life is almost the opposite of a sandpiper, who spends all of its time on shore, for these are birds who spend the vast bulk of their time far at out sea.

Like all phalaropes, the female is larger and more colorful than the male (reversing the usual situation among birds) and furthermore, the female takes the lead in courtship and leaves the males to incubate and care for the young. Perhaps the female phalaropes are radical feminists.

For most of the year these birds live far out at sea, either in the far north or, in northern winter, far to the south, in any case far from the sight of land; for that reason little is known about them. They are said to favor areas with upwelling currents, and to associate with whales, since their diet seems to consist largely of crustaceans, worms and bits of plant materials which would be brought within reach when the water is disturbed.

They come ashore to nest annually, in northern hemisphere summer, on the tundra in far northern North America, Greenland and Europe. At that time they eat large quantities of insects, which are abundant at that time and place. The female courts the male by flying in wide circles, calling to him; she may chase him around as well. After securing his submission she selects a scrape he has made (he makes several for her inspection), lines the selected scrape with grass, moss and other plant materials, and lays up to four eggs in it. The female then decamps; the male sits on the eggs for 18 - 20 days. The downy young leave the nest within a day after hatching; the male leads them to the edge of a nearby pond. He may care for them until they can fly or he may abandon them; they seem to do well on their own. The young can fly after about 15 days.

Except for this brief breeding interval on the tundra, these birds spend all their time in flocks far out at sea, near the poles of the planet, in cold water, cold, bleak weather, living on bits of things that well up in to the surface of the deep, deep water. It seems a lonely life, but they do have each other. One wonders what they talk about out there.

(KINGDOM, Animalia; PHYLUM, Chordata; CLASS, Aves; ORDER, Charadriiformes; FAMILY, Scolopacidae; FAMILY, Phalaropus; SPECIES, fulicaria.

Sources:
Kaufman, Kenn, Lives of North American Birds, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1996
Elphick, Chris, Dunning, John B. and Sibley, David, The Sibley Guide to Bird Live and Behavior, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001.

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