The black-necked stilt is an unmistakable bird. A bold black and white body balanced on incredibly long, reddish legs. A long fine black bill, big red eyes. Compared to their body size stilts have the longest legs of any bird. [Gerrit Vyn, Cornell Lab of Ornithology] I was filming in the coastal marshes of Louisiana and came across a remarkable concentration of these birds at a shallow tidal wetland. More than 600 individuals and the most I had ever seen in one location. Being in close proximity to all of these birds provided a great opportunity to watch them forage and put their unique physical attributes to work. Their long legs enable them to wade in deep water and provide a high vantage point from which they can scan the surface of both water and mudflats for prey. They use their excellent vision to forage by sight, picking small invertebrates from the surface. When visibility is poor or when prey availability dictates, stilts also forage tactilely. They use their long neck to sweep through the water from side to side and feel for prey with their extremely sensitive bill the way avocets do. Stilts’ vision and alertness make them quick to spot and react to predators. I was lucky to witness an exciting moment when a northern harrier appeared on the scene and all of the stilts and other birds raced to the middle of a wetland and flocked in a tight defensive mass. Birds moved in unison and were basically corralled by the wheeling flight of the harrier and the aerial passes it made of the birds. Some of the ducks even seemed to take refuge by crouching among the tallest stilts. It was a great example of how birds flock even with other species to confuse and avoid predators and it was impressive to see these birds that appeared so vulnerable walking the mudflats as individuals join together in flight and move as one formidable, flashing black and white flock.

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Stilts hold the avian record for the longest legs relative to body size. From on high, the Black-necked Stilt uses its excellent vision to scan mudflats for small invertebrate prey. Stilts also feel for prey by sweeping their sensitive bills through the water. In the presence of predators, stilts quickly flock together as one intimidating black-and-white mass. This defense strategy is so effective that birds of other species often try to join the flock.