The name Phalarope refers to any of three living species of slender-necked shorebirds in the genus Phalaropus of the bird family Scolopacidae. A Middle Pliocene (4-3 mya) fossil species, Phalaropus elenorae, is also known; a coracoid fragment from the Late Oligocene (c. 23 mya) near Créchy, France, was ascribed to a primitive phalarope (Hugueney et al., 2003); it could belong to an early species of the present genus but more likely does not.
They are 6–10″ (15–25 cm) in length, with lobed toes and a straight, slender bill. Predominantly grey and white in winter, their plumage develops reddish markings in summer. They are especially notable for two things: their unusual nesting behavior, and their unique feeding technique.
The typical avian sex roles are reversed in the three Phalarope species. Females are larger and more brightly colored than males. The females pursue males, compete for nesting territory, and will aggressively defend their nests and chosen mates. Once the females lay their eggs, they begin their southward migration, leaving the males to incubate the eggs and care for the young.
When feeding, a phalarope will often swim in a small, rapid circle, forming a small whirlpool. This behavior is thought to aid feeding by raising food from the bottom of shallow water. The bird will reach into the center of the vortex with its bill, plucking small insects or crustaceans caught up therein.
Phalaropes are unusually halophilic (salt-loving) and feed in great numbers in saline lakes such as Mono Lake in California and the Great Salt Lake of Utah.
Wilson’s Phalarope (P. tricolor) breeds in western North America and migrates to South America.