Shorebirds is a blanket term used to refer to multiple species of birds that live in wet, coastal environments. Because most these species spend much of their time near bodies of water, many have long legs suitable for wading (hence the name ‘Waders’). Some species prefer locations with rocks or mud. Many shorebirds display migratory patterns and often migrate before breeding season. These behaviors explain the long wing lengths observed in species, and can also account for the efficient metabolisms that give the birds energy during long migrations.
The majority of species eat small invertebrates picked out of mud or exposed soil. Different lengths of bills enable different species to feed in the same habitat, particularly on the coast, without direct competition for food. Many waders have sensitive nerve endings at the end of their bills which enable them to detect prey items hidden in mud or soft soil. Some larger species, particularly those adapted to drier habitats will take larger prey including insects and small reptiles.
Shorebirds, like many other animals, exhibit phenotypic differences between males and females, also known as sexual dimorphism. In shorebirds, various sexual dimorphisms are seen, including, but not limited to, size (e.g. body size, bill size), color, and agility. In polygynous species, where one male individual mates with multiple female partners over his lifetime, dimorphisms tend to be more diverse. In monogamous species, where male individuals mate with a single female partner, males typically do not have distinctive dimorphic characteristics such as colored feathers, but they still tend to be larger in size compared to females. The suborder of Charadrii displays the widest range of sexual dimorphisms seen in the Charadriiformes order. However, cases of sexual monomorphism, where there are no distinguishing physical features besides external genitalia, are also seen in this order.
One of the biggest factors that leads to the development of sexual dimorphism in shorebirds is sexual selection. Males with ideal characteristics favored by females are more likely to reproduce and pass on their genetic information to their offspring better than the males who lack such characteristics. Mentioned earlier, male shorebirds are typically larger in size compared to their female counterparts. Competition between males tends to lead to sexual selection toward larger males and as a result, an increase in dimorphism. Bigger males tend to have greater access (and appeal) to female mates because their larger size aids them in defeating other competitors. Likewise, if the species exhibits gender role reversal (where males take on roles traditionally done by females such as childcare and feeding), then males will select female mates based on traits that are the most appealing. In the Jacana species, females compete with each other for access to male mates, so females are larger in size. Males choose female mates based on who presents herself as the strongest and who 'owns' the most territory.
Another factor that leads to the development of dimorphisms in species is natural selection. Natural selection focuses on traits and the environment's response to the traits in question; if the said trait increases the overall fitness of the individual possessing it, then it will be 'selected' and eventually become a permanent part of the population's gene pool. For example, depending on the food available in a shorebird specie's respective niche, bigger bill sizes may be favored in all individuals. This would essentially lead to monomorphism within the species but is subject to change once sexual selection acts on the trait. Sexual selection could give rise to males with relatively larger bills than females if males used their bills to compete with other males. If larger bill size assisted the male in gathering resources, it would also make him more attractive to female mates.