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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3B

Agency Status
PIF: 3

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Copyright by: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, all rights reserved.
General Description
The Black-necked Stilt is a tall, slender wader with a long, straight, and slender bill, the upperparts glossy black (male) or duller black tinged with brown (female) with a white spot above the eye, underparts white, the legs and feet very long and red or pink. The iris is red. Immatures have buffy edges on the dark brown feathers of the upperparts.

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The black and white plumage and very long red legs of this species are unique and diagnostic.

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Western Hemisphere Range


Range Comments
The nominate subspecies breeds from north-central Washington, southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota, the lower Mississippi Valley, and the mid-Atlantic coast south through the West Indies and Mexico to northern South America and winters from the southern U.S. to South America. Resident subspecies occur in Hawaii (H. m. knudseni) and in the southern half of South America (H. m. melanurus).

Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 2250

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Migratory. Black-necked Stilts usually arrive in Montana in the last half of April and are gone by late August. Long-distance movements among breeding sites in response to drought may lead to permanent changes in distribution. The earliest sighting is at Freezeout Lake on 22 March 2007 and the latest is at Freezeout Lake on 28 September 2009.

Black-necked Stilts breed on the edges of shallow marshes, often on islands, building a scrape that is lined with vegetation, pebbles, and feathers. Nests may be out in the open or among low vegetation and are usually within 50 m of water (Robinson et al. 1999). Taking full advantage of their long legs, almost all feeding occurs in the water. In Montana, Black-necked Stilts nest in medium to large wetland complexes of open marshes and meadows, often in alkali wetlands. Habitats used during migration similar to those used in other seasons, but they also occur on coastal mud flats.

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Diet consists of aquatic invertebrates and fish. Brine flies and brine shrimp favored on salt ponds. In freshwater wetlands, crawfish, a diversity of aquatic insects (Hemiptera, Coleoptera, Diptera), snails, and small vertebrates (fish and frogs) are consumed (Robinson et al. 1999)

Strongly territorial during breeding and winter. Predators of adults include several species of hawks and owls, Great Blue Heron, and Red Fox. Predators of eggs and young include the same species as well as gulls, Common Raven and Black-billed Magpie, Coyote, and Gopher Snake. Adults will mob predators. BBS data do not exist for Montana, but data from 1980-2007 indicate a significant increase in numbers of 2.8% per year throughout the species’ range in the U.S. and Canada. High numbers for Montana include 102 birds at Lake Bowdoin on 21 June 1989 and 106 tallied at Benton Lake on 20 May 1991.

Reproductive Characteristics
Eggs are laid in May and hatch in June, and young begin flying in July. Nesting first occurred during the “major incursion” of 1977 (Skaar 1980), which coincided with a severe drought in the Great Basin that forced birds to wander north in search of favorable breeding conditions. Stilts appeared at many locations in that year, and breeding was documented at Freezeout Lake, Lake Bowdoin NWR, and Benton Lake NWR; one nest with 4 eggs was reported at Benton Lake on 14 May 1977. Stilts are now common breeders at these sites. Elsewhere east of the divide, they nested at Big Lake in 1998 and in the Helena Valley in 2001. The first nest known from west of the divide was at the Blasdel WPA near Somers in 2000, and one pair also nested there in 2001 and 2002. Stilts nested in the Mission Valley as early as 2003 and probably have nested there in small numbers every year since. Single pairs nested at the Smurfit-Stone Container ponds in the Missoula Valley in 2004 and 2007 and at Lee Metcalf NWR in 2004. Stilt nests are a simple scrape located on the ground, often in a somewhat or completely open area. The nest is typically found near the edge of the water and the nest bottom may be wet. The normal clutch consists of 4 eggs, incubation varies from 21-30 days (depending on thermal environment), the precocial chicks leave the nest in less than one day after the last chick hatches.

No management activities specific to Black-necked Stilt are currently occuring in Montana. Although their breeding range is expanding, stilt numbers probably are well below historical levels owing to the loss and degradation of wetlands that accompanied settlement of the western U.S. (Page and Gill 1994). Stilts will move nesting areas in response to changes in water level fluctuations, and respond favorably to construction of artificial wetlands. Black-necked Stilt is regarded as an important indicator species in identifying effects of contaminants in irrigation drain water on wildlife.

Threats or Limiting Factors
In some parts of their range, stilt eggs contain high levels of DDT residues, and hatchlings suffer deformities and mortality because of selenium contamination that originates from agricultural practices (Robinson et al. 1999). Loss or degradation of wetland habitats remain as significant threats.

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Citation for data on this website:
Black-necked Stilt — Himantopus mexicanus.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from