Ruddy Turnstone

Arenaria interpres

Ruddy Turnstone - Breeding Plumage
© Putneypics

Similar in shape to many plovers, the ruddy turnstone is a unique shorebird with a circumpolar range that makes it one of the most widespread shorebirds in the world. Often described as having calico or tortoiseshell plumage, this striking bird is easy to recognize.

Common Name: Ruddy Turnstone, Turnstone

Scientific Name: Arenaria interpres

Scientific Family: (formerly Charadriidae)


  • Bill: Stout, sharply pointed, black, very slight upturn at the tip
  • Size: 8-10 inches long with 17-19-inch wingspan, stocky build, short legs, pointed wings
  • Colors: Black, white, rust, brown, buff, gray, orange
  • Markings: Genders are similar, though females tend to be slightly duller overall. In breeding plumage, these birds have a black and white face with fine dark streaking on the crown. The upperparts are mottled black, brown and buff with variable amounts of rusty red in the shoulders and wings. The nape is pale and the chin and throat are plain white. The breast is covered by a black bib but may show some white within the bib, particularly at the sides. The rump is black. The underparts are plain white, and the legs and feet are orange. In flight, the wings show a bold pattern with black, white and brown or red. The tail shows a broad black patch and a white tip.

    In non-breeding plumage, these birds are more brownish overall, especially in the wings, head and face. The bib will show more gray than black.

    Juveniles are similar to non-breeding adults, but have a scaly pattern to the upperparts because of buff edging on the feathers. This edging wears off gradually.

    Foods: Insects, mollusks, crustaceans, worms, larvae, eggs, carrion (See: Carnivorous)

    Habitat and Migration

    These shorebirds prefer tundra habitats, rocky coasts or coastal spits and similar areas such as jetties or breakwaters during the summer breeding season. They are more widespread along all coastlines and coastal mudflats in the winter.

    Turnstones are found on every continent except Antarctica.

    During the summer, ruddy turnstones are found throughout the Arctic tundra regions of Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Siberia. In the winter, they migrate to the coasts of western Europe, Africa, the southern United States, various Caribbean islands, Central and South America as far south as central Chile and northern Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, a number of south Pacific islands and even Hawaii. Vagrant sightings are regularly recorded further inland than expected, particularly during migration. Around the Great Lakes region these birds are more common migrants, as well as similar large inland coastal habitats in Europe and Asia.


    These birds have a rattling, staccato chirping or chattering call of multiple syllables that grow more rapid at the end but maintain the same general pitch. A lower-pitched "pew" note is also common.


    While foraging, these birds often explore the tide line or piles of debris, flipping and turning shells, stones and driftwood to seek out prey beneath different objects. Several birds may work together to turn over larger objects. Ruddy turnstones are often seen alone or in small groups, though they can form flocks of thousands of individuals after the breeding season, and often congregate in mixed flocks with other shorebirds.

    Turnstones take alarm quite easily, and other shorebirds heed those alarms as well.

    These birds can be aggressive during the nesting season, and will vigorously chase intruders, even much larger birds. They often perch on top of boulders to watch for potential threats. Turnstones have a jerky walking gait and their flight is direct and straight with rapid wing beats.


    Turnstones are monogamous and may remain with the same mate for several years, though not necessarily for life. Males court females by making several shallow scrapes, though it is the female who finally decides the nest site and lines the scrape with lichens, moss, grasses and similar plant debris. The oval-shaped or slightly pointed eggs are olive-green or dark buff and marked with brown and black splotches.

    There are 2-5 eggs in a typical brood, and while both parents share incubation duties, the female generally does more incubation.

    After 21-24 days the eggs will hatch, and the precocial young are able to leave the nest and feed themselves in less than a day. Both parents guide and protect their offspring, though the female parent will often leave early, before the chicks can fly. Young turnstones make their first flight when they are 19-21 days old.

    Because of the short breeding season in these birds' northern breeding grounds, only one brood is raised each year.

    Attracting Ruddy Turnstones

    These shorebirds are not backyard species, but protecting coastal habitats can help attract them to a region. Artificial breakwaters and boulder jetties can be attractive areas for turnstones, especially if barnacles and similar prey is abundant.


    Because of their widespread range and often inaccessible breeding habitat, ruddy turnstones are not considered threatened or endangered. They are susceptible to a number of threats, however, particularly invasive predators in breeding areas and environmental disasters such as oil spills that threaten coastal habitats. In their wintering range, ongoing development of coastal regions for resorts or other uses can be a problem. These birds may also be susceptible to coastal changes brought about from climate change, though that impact is not yet well understood.

    Similar Birds

    • Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala)
    • Rock Sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis)
    • Surfbird (Aphriza virgata)
    • Sanderling (Calidris alba)