Red Knot

Bird of the Month: Red Knot

By Andy McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Red Knot)

PC: Mick Thompson (Red Knot)

Scientific Name: Calidris canutus

Length 10.5 in

Wingspan 23 in

Weight 4.7 oz (135 g)

AOU Band code REKN

In spring the Red Knot stands out on tidal flats in its bright chestnut plumage on its face, chest and belly. It has black legs and a black bill that is about as long as the head is wide (Paulson). By late July it will have molted to gray with a white belly and it easily blends in with other shorebirds and the colors of sand and vegetation along shorelines. It often associates with dowitchers and can be distinguished from them by its relatively short bill. 

The Red Knot is a good example of a “jump” migrant, a bird that migrates long distances between a few staging areas, where it will stay a while to replenish its weight and rest. The most well-know location for Red Knots in North America is along the Atlantic Flyway at Delaware Bay where they feed on horseshoe crab eggs. In South America the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network has identified several important wintering areas including Rio Negro in Argentina, Lagoa do Peixe in Brazil, and Bahia Lomas in Chile (Harrington). 

There are three subspecies of Red Knot in North America. The subspecies C. canutus rosalaari breeds in the Arctic tundra and is thought to migrate along the Pacific Flyway wintering in various areas all the way to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. Red Knots are more common in Washington in spring where they stage at Bottle Beach and around Grays Harbor. They move northwesterly to the Copper River Delta before arriving in Northwestern Alaska (Harrington). 

Red Knots nest in the Arctic tundra usually on higher ground but near water. The nest consists of a scrape on the ground in an open area. Sometimes it is lined with small leaves. Usually, as with most shorebirds, four eggs are deposited. They are often pale brown or olive and marked with brown or black spots to help with camouflage. Both parents incubate the eggs for about four weeks. Downy young leave the nest very quickly and, although tended by adults, they feed themselves (Kaufmann). They will eat a variety of mollusks including sand crabs, marine worms and insects.

The Red Knot is a member of the large genus of Calidris sandpipers. The genus takes its name from the Greek kalidris a form of skalidris, used by Aristotle for a speckled water bird. Its species name canutus is for King Canute of Denmark (995-1035). The king went to the shore and commanded the tide not to come in. When it did come in, he said the demonstration was to show his subjects that his power was limited. The name Knot is a form of Canute (Holloway). The reference is to that fact that the knot is a shorebird.

The reliance of Red Knots on a few staging areas to which they regularly return makes them vulnerable if these areas are disturbed. Such disruption has likely led to steep declines in their population. The Red Knot is a Watchlist bird and is a candidate for inclusion on the Endangered Species Act list.