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Red Knot Niche

Because of the particular combination of resources taken advantage of by the Red Knot throughout the

course of the year, they have a very specific or narrow niche. The Red knot spends its breeding season in the

Arctic and winters in tropical and subtropical climates. The resources and tactics exploited by these birds are very

different in their breeding and non-breeding ranges.

While living in the dry Arctic tundra, which is roughly from June to August, the bird lives on slopes and

cliffs that are within easy access to wetlands. They exploit suitable habitats in Alaska, Greenland, Canada, Siberia,

and Russia, depending on subspecies. It has been suggested that these areas began being taken advantage of

when the last Ice Age ended. Since not many organisms are able to thrive in Arctic habitats, shorebirds, in this

case Red Knots, face less chance of predation, competition, and parasitism on their breeding grounds. With the

relief of such pressures, they are able to spend more energy on survival and reproduction and less on defense.

However, there are some predators on the breeding grounds including Arctic Fox and Jaegers, which prey mostly

on eggs and chicks. To defend against these predators, parents stay very still while incubating and perform

distraction displays when the predator approaches very closely. When the birds first arrive back at their breeding

site, the winter snow usually still persists, leaving little insects to prey upon. This causes the knots to rely on

grasses and their seed for food until spring arrives. To defend their breeding ground, couples are monogamous

and maintain a territory of about one square kilometer. This territory is defended by complex aerial displays done

by the male. Red Knots are loyal to breeding sites and each population returns to their respective range to claim a

territory in which to nest. It may be for the reason of loyalty that this species does not seem to colonize new

areas.

During their migration between breeding and wintering grounds, Red Knots stop at sites along coastal

estuaries in order to prepare for the rest of their journey. During stopovers Red Knots rely on energy-rich food

sources to restore energy reserves, which include small marine animals like bivalves and crustaceans. They tend to

choose thin-shelled animals since they have a higher ratio of meat to total mass. The rufa subspecies feeds on

horseshoe crab eggs in the local Delaware Bay during their stopover from their wintering grounds in Tierra del
Fuego to breeding sites in Canada. It has been suggested that this change in diet is due to their inability to readily

digest hard-shelled invertebrates because of the reduction in their digestive organs. Birds that use stopovers in

Massachusetts on their way south eat mussels from mudflats. Still in other areas, the Red Knots rely on snails,

crabs, and shrimp. The birds retrieve their buried food from beneath the sand, which is detected via nerve endings

on the end of the beak. The short length of the Red Knot’s beak is the determining factor of the range of prey

available, as they can only reach organisms that live close to the surface.

While the birds are territorial on their breeding grounds, the very opposite is true for their stops during

migration. As the birds migrate in giant flocks, they interact very closely, inter- and intraspecifically, at stopover

sites. They can be seen in mixed flocks along the shore that are enormous in magnitude, including other

shorebirds like dowitchers, plovers, and turnstones. Competition among these birds is diffused because of the

different ways in which they forage. Dowitchers, for example, have longer legs and bills than Red Knots, allowing

them to feed in deeper water. Plovers are visual hunters with shorter bills than the Red Knot and usually forage

along the shore without probing the sand. Turnstones forage just as their name suggests, overturning rocks and

stones along the shore to reveal the organisms living beneath them. The strategy of foraging in large groups

makes it more efficient, as they can spend less time individually looking out for predators and more time looking

for food. In this case, the Red Knot finds strength in numbers. Predators that threaten Red Knot populations in

these coastal ranges are larger birds, including falcons (especially Peregrine), Short-eared Owls, and Great Black-

backed Gulls. To avoid such threats, Red Knots form dense flocks, changing direction simultaneously in flight,

which makes it difficult for a predator to pick out an individual.

The wintering destination of this about 9,000 mile migration ranges from the coasts of the most southern

of the United States to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. Outside of the Americas, some

populations of Red Knots winter on coastal areas of the British Isles, India, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and

central Africa. In these habitats, the birds forage much as they do during migration since they winter on coasts as

well. They also depend on some seeds and vegetation in this range. Their interactions and response to predators

at wintering sites are often similar to those exhibited during migration as well.
The long bouts of flight undergone twice a year by the Red Knot in order to breed and winter say a

considerable amount about the adaptations acquired by the species. Primarily, it is the adaptation of flight of the

taxonomic class to which the species belongs that has allowed them to avoid predation, escape changes in the

environment, and take advantage of a large range of resources. More specifically, the stout and sturdy body shape

of the Red Knot allows it to maintain reserves needed for the high expenses of flight. For such long trips, these

birds can reduce the mass of their internal organs in order to make more room for such reserves. Certain variables

like wing morphology and body size make the Red Knot a highly effective long-distance flier.

Before the Red Knot returns the breeding grounds in the Arctic, it takes on its breeding plumage to

prepare for courtship. As the common name is indicative of typical breeding plumage, the birds molt their drab

grey coat of feathers and replace them with bright red ones covering the breast and under parts. Display is also

necessary for courtship, as the males exhibit them above the nesting territories, along with song. Once fertilized,

the female produces an average of four eggs, which are then incubated by both parents in a scrape nest made of

lichens and other tundra vegetation. Young are born precocial, which can leave the nest within days and fly within

a matter of weeks. As the short Arctic summer comes to a close, the females are the first to leave, followed by the

males and lastly by the new recruits. This gives the juveniles time to forage without competition from the adults,

allowing them to prepare their bodies for southward migration.