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Redshanks - Wading Birds with Red Shanks

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There are two species of birds known as Redshanks in honour of their orange-red legs: the Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) and the Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus).

Common Redshanks, as their name suggests, are quite common - they can be found across Europe, Africa and Asia, and there are even populations in Australia. Some members of the species stay close to where they hatched, such as in the UK, while others migrate, eg from Norway to North Africa. Spotted Redshanks mostly spend the spring in Siberia or northern Scandinavia, and migrate to Africa during the northern hemisphere's winter, so they are only infrequently seen in coastal areas elsewhere in Europe.

In winter, the two species look very similar, with white underparts and grey backs. The Spotted Redshank has a paler neck than its common cousin at that time of the year, as well as a white stripe above its eye. Its beak is also slightly longer. In summer, however, the two species are easy to distinguish - the Common Redshank simply develops browner tones in its plumage, but the Spotted Redshank develops black plumage with the white spots on its back that give it its name.

In the breeding season, the female redshank lays up to four eggs in a nest consisting of a scrape lined with leaves. Male and female Common Redshanks take turns to incubate the eggs, but the incubation of Spotted Redshank eggs is mostly carried out by the males. The eggs hatch after about four weeks, and the chicks can feed themselves. Common Redshank chicks are looked after by both parents for about three weeks, then the male looks after them until they learn to fly when they are four to five weeks old. The male Spotted Redshanks look after the chicks from the time they hatch to the time when they can fly. The oldest Spotted Redshank known to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was eight years old, but the oldest Common Redshank lived to the age of 26.

Both species mainly eat mud-dwelling creatures including snails, worms, spiders and insect larvae, plus small fish and frogs. They will also eat beetles and flies. In the UK, Common Redshanks are common sights, and Spotted Redshanks are occasional visitors, at coastal nature reserves, including Titchfield Haven on the south coast and Burton Mere in the north west.

The Redshank Family

There are 11 other members of the Tringa genus. Nine of them, plus the redshanks, are classed as of Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. However, the Grey-tailed Tattler (Tringa brevipes) found around Australia and north-east Asia is Near Threatened as there are fewer than 30,000 mature birds in the wild and their population has decreased in recent years. The Spotted Greenshank (Tringa guttifer) is Endangered - they breed in eastern Russia and winter in south-east Asia and there are fewer than 1,500 mature birds in the wild as their population has decreased in recent years.

The Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) occupies similar places to the Common Redshank, although its range does not stretch into Australia. The Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) and the Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) also occupy a similar range to the Common Redshank, but are less often seen in Europe outside Scandinavia. The Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) is found in Asia, Africa and Australia, but is very rarely seen in Europe. The Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), the Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), the Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) and the Willet (Tringa semipalmata) are found in North and South America. The Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana) can be found around the west coast of the Americas, and the east coast of Australia.

Many of these birds are threatened by being hunted in their breeding grounds, so actions to protect them have been proposed. Work to conserve the habitats of these birds is ongoing.

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