The stilt walker is one of the most intriguing attractions at any circus or parade wherever one appears. The body of a person standing well above the crowd walking on long stiff legs really stirs the imagination: “Wouldn’t it be neat to be as tall as that, standing above everyone else!” It would probably get very tiresome very quickly. The stilt walker has even found his way into our language, as the adjective stilted is defined as “describing something – usually a style of writing or speaking – that is unnaturally formal. Imagine someone walking awkwardly on a pair of stilts and you have a good impression of the word stilted – wooden and stiff.” In my collection of thousands of photos, I could only find one of a juggling stilt walker, from a family vacation in 2003, during the very earliest days of my venture into photography.
Certainly the Black-necked Stilt is aptly named, for if ever a bird appeared to be walking on stilts, this is it. (1) However, as stilted as a human stilt walker may appear, the Black-necked Stilt seems to be able to glide along on its long legs very naturally. On the other hand, when coming in for a landing (3) or flying, (4 and 5), the long legs seem to fit that awkward part of the stilted definition. The black and white plumage, particularly with the black circle on the face surrounding the eyes and a unique white spot, jump out at the observer when a small flock of Stilts gather together. (6) It is easy to think the Black-necked Stilt has backward bending knees, completely opposite to our human bending knees. However, that is not the case whatsoever, as the Stilt’s knees are actually hidden up under the plumage of its underside. The backward bend in the long stilt legs is actually the ankle and heel of the foot, while the long stilt lower part of the leg is really the foot extending down to the toes which the Stilt uses to scratch its face just like any other bird. (7)
As in most species, the juvenile Stilts are drabber until they reach their adult plumage. Younger birds have quite a bit of gray on their backs, and lack the black and white face of their parents. (8) As they grow toward “teenage” they begin to acquire more black plumage, but retain the pale yellow legs that will not turn into the rich pink until they reach adulthood. (9)
While there are six species of Stilts worldwide, only one, the Black-necked can be found in North America. All six stilt species have some form of the black and white and the unique long legs. But like their namesake human stilt walkers, wherever you find Black-necked Stilts they are a leading attention getter. Beautiful elegant birds, they do not need to add to their attraction by juggling or dancing or some of the other fancy moves human stilt walkers employ to draw attention. Spotting Black-necked Stilts is always a highlight of any birding trip or experience.
For all you ever wanted to know about the history and different types, styles and activities of human stilt walkers, see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stilts. For more on Black-necked Stilts “knees” as “heels” see: gustaviatex.com/blog/2015/6/2/the-longest-legs.