Ruddy Turnstone Fact File
English – Beach-Bird/Robin, Bead Bird, Bishop Plover, Bracket, Bishop Plover, Brant bird, Calico Back/Bird/ Jacket, Checkered Snipe, Chicken/Chicken Bird/Plover, Chuckatuck, Creddock, Ebb Picker, Heart-Bird, Hebridal Sandpiper, Horse-foot Snipe (after the Horseshoe crab aka Horse-foot), Jinny, King’s Page, Red-legs/-legged Plover, Rock Bird/Plover, Sand Runner, Sea Dotterel/Quail, Skirl Crake, Sparked-back, Stanepecker, Stone Pecker/Raw, Streaked back, Tortoiseshell Plover, Turnstone,
Other languages – ‘Akekeke, Gobhlachan/Gobhlachain, Hutan-y-mor, Kye-ute-cat-tat-tah, Playero Turco, Putilla Turca, Roskarl, Steenloper, Steinwälzer, Talivikeak, Tangle Picker, Tournepierre à Collier/interprete, Trìlleachain Bheag/Trìlleachan Beag, Vira Pedras, Voltapietra, Vuelvepiedras Común/Rojizo.
Scientific name: Arenaria interpres.
Arenaria: Latin; arenarius relating to sand, with the Medieval Latin suffix -aria meaning to love, so, sand-loving.
interpres: Latin; meaning messenger, translator, intermediary or go between.
There are convoluted interpretations as to the naming of this bird as interpres by Linnaeus. The first is straightforward as it refers to the bird being an intermediary between land and sea, where it tends to feed between the two. However a much more interesting explanation has the name deriving from a linguistic mistake made by Linnaeus while visiting Götland in Sweden. This error involves the word Tolk, which, in standard Swedish, means interpreter. He believed that this was the name given to the Ruddy Turnstone by the locals. However it turns out that the name Tolk used by them actually referred to the Common Redshank Tringa totanus and the word in the local dialect in Götland means stalk or legs, and thus referred to the Common Redshank’s long legs. A twist to the interpretation of this story is that the word Tolk was in fact used in the standard Swedish, and not the local dialect, and did mean messenger after all, referring to the sentinel characteristics of the Common Redshank in its warning to other denizens of the marsh of approaching danger. Either way, Tolk did not refer to the Ruddy Turnstone, but instead the Common Redshank.
Former scientific names:
Tringa interpres by Linnaeus in 1758. Tringa is a modern Latin name that was given to the Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus by Aldrovanus in 1590 it is derived from the Greek trungas which is a thrush-sized, white-rumped wading birds that bobs its tail, mentioned by Aristotle. Tringa later became the genus name for what we collectively now refer to as ‘the shanks’.
Brisson first used Arenaria in 1760 and it replaced Tringa.
Strepsilas interpres; Ruddy Turnstone was also considered to be a plover by some – Greek strepsis, a turning over – from strepho to turn, laas meaning stone.
Subspecies: Two – A. i. interpres (Linnaeus 1758); A. i. morinella (Linnaeus 1766). Formerly a third subspecies A. oahuensis was suggested for a Pacific race, specimens of which were taken on Oahu Island in the Hawaiian islands. This was thought to breed in Alaska and is intermediate between interpres and morinella.
The American race was formerly considered separate and named Tringa morinella.
Taxonomy: Currently part of Scolopacidae and closely allied to the Surfbird Aphriza virgata and Calidrid sandpipers, but formerly considered in some classifications to be within the Charadriidae. There are fossil records dating from the Middle Pleistocene that have been discovered in the UK. The first historical record was found to be in 1671 when it was referred to as the ‘sea-dotterel’ by Browne. It is also suggested that Linnaeus made his description of this species from a specimen collected by Browne. The first use of Turnstone seems to come from Catesby in 1731 as ‘Turn-stone’.
Ruddy Turnstones with Surfbirds Aphriza virgata Antofagasta, Chile.
Distribution: Widespread being found on every continent, except Antarctica, at some point in the annual cycle of movements (see below). A. i. interpres breeds Axel Heiburg and Ellesmere Islands in the north Canadian Arctic, Greenland, northern Eurasia and north-west Alaska. In the non-breeding season they are found along the coasts of Western Europe, Africa, southern Asia, Australasia and the South Pacific islands with small numbers also on the west coast of North America from California to Mexico. A. i. morinella breeds in north-east Alaska and most of Arctic Canada. Outside the breeding season it appears from South Carolina and the Gulf of Mexico to south-central Chile and Northern Argentina. Probably bred in Britain in 1976 but not proven. Formerly bred but now extinct bear Island and parts of the Baltic as in East Germany up to 1918.
Habitat preference: Turnstones breed on the tundra normally close to the sea usually on stony ground with little vegetation. Outside the breeding season it prefers rocky coasts, sandy beaches, especially those with much flotsam and jetsam and washed up seaweed on the tide line, mudflats, again preferably where stones and rocks can be found. They will also use jetties, harbour walls, breakwaters and moored boats to feed or roost. Where found inland on migration it is usually near large bodies of water but also around standing water on grasslands such as the prairies in North America especially where there are muddy shores.
Breeding: May – early August on coastal plains bordering Arctic seas but extending further south in the Baltic region than elsewhere. Carries out ground displays, a song flights, calls and boundary patrolling to maintain territory. Both sexes assist in incubation, but female leaves after hatching and before fledging. Males leave at or soon after fledging and young birds form flocks.
Nest: small scrape in the ground.
Nominate interpres –
North Western Population.
Breeding: Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Islands in Canada and Greenland arrives late May/early June. Adults leave August juveniles early September.
Non-breeding: winters in Western Europe, Irish and North Seas south to Iberia with a few reaching the north African coast overlapping with Fenno-Scandian birds. Adults arrive on the wintering grounds from late July followed by juveniles in August. Northerly migration start April-May. Early migrants probably stop over as they put down less fat.
Route: some stopover in Iceland and south-west Norway on autumn migration.
Fenno-Scandian and West Russian Population
Breeding: Norway, Sweden, Finland and into eastern Russia and south into the Baltic. May/June to August.
Non-breeding: western Europe to Morocco and West Africa.
Route: mainly migrates through the Baltic region and along continental coasts, a small percentage passing through eastern Britain.
Breeding: from White Sea to central Siberia
Non-breeding: eastern Mediterranean, Red sea, Persian Gulf, coasts of Indian Ocean and South Africa
Route: uncertain but thought to be through Kazakhstan lakes and Caspian and Black Seas. Inland and coastal Africa.
Tundra Population 2
Breeding: eastern Siberia and western Alaska.
Non-breeding: south-east Asia, Australia, New Zealand, western Pacific and locally on coast of California and Mexico. Australia August to November – March to June.
Route: possibly two routes to Australia. Birds wintering in eastern Australia and New Zealand travel south across the Pacific and return via east coast of Asia. Birds in western Australia travel south along east Asian coasts.
Breeding: North–east Alaska and Arctic Canada.
Non-breeding: South Carolina and Gulf of Mexico, and southern California, south, including coast of Caribbean islands to South Central Chile and Northern Argentina.
Route: Migrates mainly on Pacific and Atlantic sea coasts.
Conservation Status: IUCN – Least Concern; UK – Amber listed. On USA east coast dropped by more than 50% since 1989
Threats: Climate change is causing the tundra to change its character and may render the environment unsuitable. Earlier hatching of invertebrates before the birds have had time to nest and hatch their young may affect the population if they cannot adapt quickly enough. If sea levels rise as predicted, some low islands may disappear altogether and the intertidal zone may be lost in many places.
The nature of their foraging among debris and detritus on beaches makes them vulnerable to getting trapped or caught in fishing line, plastic rings and other hazards of the same nature. A number of birds have been seen with either line entangled around their legs or with parts of the leg amputated by tight lines stopping blood circulation.
Hunting in many areas where it was previously carried out for sport has largely been halted, Shore shooting is rare these days with some exceptions such as France and Malta. However subsistence hunting of waders and other shorebirds does continue in some poorer areas where food is scarce. As a food source it was never of great importance unlike the larger curlews, godwits and lapwings although it would be taken if available, being plump and fat made them good to eat. They are apparently easy to attract to decoys, rendering them easy targets.
Nest and chick predation by feral American Mink occurs in some regions as well as by natural predators such as skuas, owls, harriers, cranes, foxes, bears etc. Adults are preyed upon mainly by avin predators such as falcons and hawks.
Disturbance on beaches, especially those used for feeding or roosting due to human recreation activities. These include walking and running particularly with uncontrolled dogs, kite-surfing, horse-riding etc.
Ruddy Turnstones are susceptible to avian influenza
Vital statistics: interpres averages slightly larger than morinella Length 21.0–26.0 cm Wing interpres 14.5-16.5 cm morinella 14.1-16.3 cm Bill 1.9-2.5 cm Tarsus interpres 2.4-2.7 cm morinella 25-28 Weight interpres 79–149 g morinella 65-135 g. Bill 19-25 cm
Eggs: interpres 4.05 x 2.92cm (average) range; longest 4.45cm, shortest 3.6cm – widest 3.13cm narrowest 2.6cm. morinella 3.9 x 2.8cm (average) estimate 15.5g.
Habits: Forms flocks on migration but winter flocks tend not to be large, often in tens rather than hundreds. These flocks tend to stick together with the birds all ‘knowing’ each other. They have a hierarchy that involves fighting and they are the only scolopacid known to kill one another. The Revd. C. A. Johns conjectured that, as they did not occur in large flocks, the arriving wintering birds constituted family parties, he wrote of them ‘It is a bird of elegant form and beautiful part-coloured plumage, active in its habits, a nimble runner, and an indefatigable hunter after food.’ He also recounted a story told by Audubon who was observing their feeding methods. ‘Whenever the object was not too large, the bird bent its legs to half their length, placed its bill beneath it, and with a sudden quick jerk of the head pushed it off, when it quickly picked up the food that was thus exposed to view, and walked deliberately to the next shell to perform the same operation. In several instances, when the clusters of oyster shells or clods of mud were too heavy to be removed in the ordinary way, they would not only use the bill and head, but also the breast, pushing the object with all their strength, and reminding me of the labour which I have undergone in turning over a large turtle. Among the sea-weeds that had been cast on the shore, they used only their bill, tossing the garbage from side to side with a dexterity extremely pleasant to behold [hence the name Tangle Picker]’.
Very busy bird bustling about in groups, often bickering with one another. They will co-operate to turn a particularly heavy item. D. G. Elliot added this ‘…and if the object is too deeply implanted in the sand to be turned over in the ordinary way, it endeavours to undermine it and roll it over in the hole thus made.’
Can be very tame, feeding at people’s feet if there are tidbits on offer. Will roost on buildings at the coast. Loves to bathe in rainwater puddles and freshwater pools.
Bathing in a freshwater puddle, Bolivar peninsular, Texas, USA.
Food: A huge variety of food is taken by this opportunistic species. What it consumes depends on where it is and what food items are available. Basic diet consists of insects, crustaceans, molluscs and other invertebrates either dead or alive, and occasionally plant material, especially on the breeding grounds. Predates birds’ eggs, especially terns, in Pacific Islands. Usually taking unattended eggs but has been observed plucking eggs from beneath brooding terns. In one report was seen to be taking advantage of human disturbance following researchers through a tern colony plundering the unprotected nests, thus modifying the researchers’ techniques.
This eclectic taste means that it can exploit most environments in which it finds itself. They are well known for their ability to turn over items under which prey may be lurking and several individuals will often co-operate to turn larger objects that one alone could not, sharing any spoils. They spend much of their time on the tideline sifting through what has been washed up, both natural and man-made, and where tangled mats of seaweed present profitable hunting grounds they will bulldoze their way through the weed turning it over using the force of their whole body. They have been reported to eat other birds’ eggs and much larger items washed up on the shore including dead animals including on one occasion a human corpse. They will also feed on food scraps provided to them, deliberately or otherwise, that have been left by humans particularly bread, seed, rice and chips and will also take advantage of discarded food scraps from other species. At Scarborough dock we fed the small flock there in mealworms that were eagerly taken.
Photos of Ruddy Turnstone eating a variety of items by Elis Simpson. (Pass cursor for information or click on photo to enlarge).
In India they were seen taking ‘May flies’ from a wall of a building on which they were resorting. They cleared an area of these prolific flies to the extent of their reach from the top. Photos of Ruddy Turnstones feeding on ‘May flies’ by Jaysukh Parekh ‘Suman’. (Pass cursor for information or click on photo to enlarge).
Plumage: Breeding males – White head streaked black on the crown (morinella less strongly). Black face pattern involves a black stripe in front of the eye and a vertical line down from under the eye which crosses a black line along the bottom edge of the ear coverts, this turning upward towards the nape. The vertical black line then continues down to the black breast band joining in the centre forming a white throat patch. The breast band has an inverted white V stretching up from the belly giving the appearance form the front that the bird is wearing a bikini top.
The black breast band continues down the lower side the mantle to form a V on the back. Underparts all white. Upper scapulars orange-chestnut while the lower scapulars form another band of black along the body. Coverts vary from orange –chestnut to brownish fringed buff (more orange-chestnut in morinella). Tertials dark brownish-black with orange-chestnut wedges on the outer edge, White-based tail dark with white tips to feathers broader at edges. On flight has a dark rump and upper tail coverts and a white streak up the back. Prominent white wing bar and flashes on the inner wing. Underwing all white. Breeding females; Similarly, plumaged head and neck except that crown is washed tan under dark streaks. Generally, less colourful than the male with larger dark centres to the scapulars and coverts. Non-breeding males and females: Generally dull brown losing the brilliant white and black head pattern to a large degree, breast band less solid. All back and wing coverts dark centred with brown fringes a white line formed by the outer edge of the lower scapulars along the body. Juveniles: Very similar to adult non-breeding plumage but mantle and scapulars smaller and more compact and the edges to the dark centred feathers lighter orange-brown.
Bare parts: Bill short, black, often brownish at base, straight or slightly upturned top edge to upper mandible appears more upturned due to the curvature of the lower mandible, giving a wedge-shaped appearance. Legs orange-red, especially in breeding season. In juveniles it is yellower, or brownish developing the orange colour gradually through first winter.
Moult: takes place for the most part on wintering grounds although some will complete at stop-over sites. Longer distance migrants moult later and usually on the wintering grounds
Adult interpres moulting from breeding plumage to non-breeding plumage. The first five primaries on the left wing are moulted (nearly so in the 5th) primaries 6 and 7 are missing and 8-10 still have to drop. The secondaries have started to moult starting at the outermost where there are gaps between the secondaries and new inner primaries. Tail feathers have started to moult from the centre outwards. Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales, UK September 2012.
Voice: Variously transcribed as tukatuk, tuk-e-tuk, trik-tuk-tuk-tuk. Also chick-ik, kuu or, ke,u teuk, tuk often rapidly repeated or a twittering kitititit or a purring rattle. On breeding ground, a rolling rattle; TITwoooo-TITwooRIT-ititititititit. A. Trevor-Battye (1895) said ‘This lovely bird has a far more elaborate song than that of any wader I now. You really may call it a song’. However, the Rev. F.C.R. Jourdain disputed this suggesting the calling was more to shun intruders as it continued late into the season even when chicks were present.
Curiosities: Ruddy Turnstones are reputed to bring their bills to bear upon the cloaca of predators such as skua, crows and hawks when mobbing them which explains why these would be assassins disappear quickly and noisily when encountering these feisty little birds.
Brandt reports that in the ‘olden days’ (relative to his life) The Ruddy Turnstone was known as the King’s Page, presumably for its colourful markings, and he suggests that no two are the same.
Herbert Brandt further commented: ‘Four Ruddy Turnstone eggs laid in four successive days weighed 2.5 ounces while the parent bird herself weighed just 3.5 ounces.’
We have seen one on a beach in Florida dig a hole so deep that it disappeared into it in a matter of a few seconds.
D. G. Elliot indicates that ‘In one South Pacific Island, (Nawado or Pleasant Island, latitude 0° 25’ south, 167° 5’ east longitude) the natives keep this species in small cup-shaped cages and employ them in fighting, one bird against the other, in the manner of game cocks. It is probable that captivity or the effects of food given them produces this pugnacity, a trait not exhibited by the Turnstone in its wild state, as any species of shore bird would seem to be the very last one to select for the purpose of combat in a prize ring.’
In Hawai’i the Ruddy Turnstone is called ‘Akekeke and it is though to be a messenger from the gods. Along with the Kōlea (Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva) and Ulili (Wandering Tattler Tringa incana) Hawaiian chiefs and gods sent these intelligent and strong birds over the ocean on important assignments..
This species is depicted on Wader Quest Collectables pin badge No 2. It was the second badge we created at the same time as the Diademed Sandpiper Plover in 2013. It was subsequently reprinted, updated and improved in 2018. This species also appears on a Wader Quest fridge magnet.
Original badge (no longer available)
Redesigned badge currently available
Stamps: The Ruddy Turnstone appears on a number of postage stamps – Alderney, Jersey, Guernsey. Bahrain, Barbados, Bermuda, Cucos (Aus), Cuba, Grenada, Mexico, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Monserrat, Mauritania, Nevis, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, St Kitts, St Pierre et Miquelon, St Vincent Turks and Cacos, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Wallace and Fortuna.
Current conservation efforts
Current research projects
Colour ringing scheme in Scarborough.
A total of thirty-three birds were ringed at Scarborough; eleven in 2012 and twenty-one in 2014. It turns out they were not a particularly adventurous bunch, none of the 2012 birds have ever been seen anywhere else and only four of the latter group have been seen elsewhere. Of these, one was seen at Seahouses in the UK (one hundred miles north) and another in Iceland (one thousand miles north-west), one was seen in Bridlington displaying a marked preference for harbours. Bridlington is just a little under twenty miles to the south, just past Flamborough Head and a rather more intrepid, but hardly a globe-trotting individual, made it out of the UK as far as Germany at a place called Eidersperrwerk, Schleswig-Holstein, some four hundred miles due east of Scarborough. It was seen there on the 19th of May 2014 having been seen previously in March, and afterward in July, back at Scarborough.
All photographs by Elis Simpson – Wader Quest unless otherwise stated.
Bent, Arthur Cleveland: Life Histories of North American Shorebirds Part Two (1962)
Brandt, Herbert; Alaskan Bird trails (1943)
Bircham, Peter: A History of Ornithology (2014)
BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Arenaria interpres. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 25/02/2019.
Chandler, Richard: Shorebirds in Action (2017)
Cramer, Deborah.: The Narrow Edge (2015)
Cramp, Stanley et al.: Handbook of the Birds of Europe the Middle East and North Africa (1993)
Goodrich, S. G.: Illustrated Natural History of the Animal Kingdom (1859)
Elliot, Daniel Giraud: North American Shore Birds (1893)
Hayman, Peter, John Marchant & Tony Prater: Shorebirds (1986)
del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliot & Jordi Sargatal: Handbook of the Birds of the World – Vol. 3 (1996)
Jobling, James A.: Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names (2010)
Johns, Revd C. A.: British Birds in their haunts (1893)
Johnsgard, Paul A.: The Plovers, Sandpipers, and Snipes of the World (1981)
Lappo, E. G., P. S. Tomkovich and E. E. Syroechkovskiy: Atlas of Breeding Waders in the Russian Arctic (2012)
O’Brien, Michael, Richard Crossley & Kevin Karlson: The Shorebird Guide (2006)
Peacock, Faansie: Chamberlain’s Waders. A definitive guide to southern Africa’s waders (2016)
Pearson, T. Gilbert, et al.: Birds of America (1936)
Rosair, David & David Cotteridge: Photographic guide to the Waders of the World (1995)
Schofield, Paul and Brent Stephenson: Birds of New Zealand (2013)
Snow, D. W. and C. M. Perrins et al: The Birds of the Western Palearctic Concise Edition – Vol 1 (1998)
Wetmore, Alex: Birds of Porto Rico United States Dept. of Agriculture Bulletin No. 326 (1916)
Woodley, Keith: Shorebirds of New Zealand (2012)