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What is a “Stint”?

September 14, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

After we found the Red-necked Stint last month and posted about it, a few readers asked why some sandpipers are called “stints” and others in the same genus of Calidris are not. Good question, for which I had no certain answer.

Red-necked Stint. Malibu Lagoon (Photo: Chris Tosdevin, 8-25-21, time: 08:02:37)

It seemed likely to be because all four species of “stints”—Little, Long-toed, Temminck’s and Red-necked—at 6.0-6.25” long, are among the very smallest of sandpipers. “Stint” probably shares etymological roots with “stinting,” “stunted,” “stingy,” all of which relate to being short, small, scant, limited, confined, underdeveloped, frugal or penny-pinchingly miserly.

Temminck´s Stint, Varanger, Norway, June 2004 (Jari Peltomaki at FinnNaturi)

Our Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla, at 13-15 cm. long, and 17-33 grams, is supposedly the smallest of the sandpipers, hence the name “Least.” But the Little Stint Calidris minuta, at 12-14 cm. long, is overlappingly shorter, although they weigh 17-44 grams, ranging slightly bulkier. It’s almost a toss-up whether the Least or the Little is the least of the lot.

Red-necked Stint and closer Western Sandpiper. Malibu Lagoon (Photo: Femi Faminu, 8-22-21, time: 11:08)

So why isn’t the “Least Sandpiper” the “Least Stint?” A few of the other calidrids could also qualify as stints, the 6.25″ Semipalmated Sandpiper for certain and possibly the 6.5″ Western Sandpiper. But they’re called sandpipers, not stints. Why?

Least Sandpiper (Ray Juncosa 8-22-21)

It’s due to range, really. The four stints are all Eurasian birds. Only the Red-necked Stint regularly breeds in North America, in far far far northwestern Alaska, on the Seward Peninsula and at Pt. Barrow. No one knew about that little detail centuries ago when these names were being concocted.

The Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers are all New World birds, very rarely seen anywhere in Eurasia. Presumably, by the time explorers and biologists got around to naming New World birds, the then-centuries-old British name “stint” seemed inappropriate, old-fashioned, perhaps archaic, perhaps too “generic,” so they stuck with sandpiper as the generic name. They’re all sandpipers, including the stints.

The Red-necked Stints breeding in Alaska occasionally get their geomagnetic wires crossed and fly southeast for the winter, passing through California and—once, at least—Malibu Lagoon. Normally they fly southwest and spend the winter in Australasia, alongside a million other stints.

In case you’re wondering, besides the seven stint/sandpipers I’ve named so far, there are eleven more species in the genus Calidris: Great Knot C. tenuirostris, Red Knot C. canutus, Sanderling C. alba, White-rumped Sandpiper C. fuscicollis, Baird’s Sanpiper C. bairdii, Pectoral Sandpiper C. melanotos, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata, Curlew Sandpiper, C. Ferruginea, Purple Sandpiper C. maritima, Rock Sandpiper C. ptilocnemis, Dunlin C. alpina.

I discovered there is an Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names, written by W.B. Lockwood, first published in 1984, and ordered a copy. My paperback version arrived ending at page 174 at the entry for Yowlring, with the following four pages ripped out. They may have been blank. Or not.

Request to all: If anyone has this book, are there additional entries following Yowlring? If so, could you send me a copy of them? Or if anyone knows any British birders, will you ask them about it? I’d greatly appreciate it.

Red-necked Stint. Malibu Lagoon (Photo: Chris Tosdevin, 8-25-21, time: 08:05:53)

I’ll end with the fascinating entry for Stint, fresh from my new book.

A rather widespread term for the Dunlin, also for the Sanderling and, indiscriminately, for any Sandpiper. It occurs along the east coast from Northumberland to Suffolk, as well as in Sussex, making its debut in 1472 ‘Styntis’, the present spelling first in 1622. A corruption is seen in STENT, recorded in 1579, and apparently also in the peculiar form SNENT quoted as a name used in Berwicks. Etymologically, stint is allied to stunt, giving a basic sense of small or stunted creature.

The name STINT has passed into the standard nomenclature in the term LITTLE STINT.

Reference to cognates in related languages helps us to understand more clearly the semantic evolution of this name. In Danish and Swedish dialects, stint is a term loosely applied to various species of small fish. In (originally Low) German Stint this general sense has been narrowed to a point whee it has come to denote one small species only, namely the Smelt. In English, this very old word evidently developed in such a way that it became associated with birds, to be later restricted to small waders and sometimes to an individual species, as Dunlin or Sanderling.

The birds in question with their long, strong bills bear a close resemblance to the Snipes, hence such local Dunlin names as SEA SNIPE, common in the north and in Scotland, or LITTLE SNIPE, heard in Yorkshire (Swaledale), further Gloucestershire SAND SNIPE, with which compare the [Common] Sandpiper named SUMMER SNIPE.

So “stint” was a generic term for the really small sandpipers. For everyday use for everyone except the most persnickety proto-biologist, all those little sandpipers were interchangeable and of little use to anyone. “Stint” was sufficient, much like LBJ (Little Brown Job) is sufficient today—even for birders who are supposed to care about these matters—for any unidentified small brown bird ducking into a bush.

Note: Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 3 came in handy for the above information pertaining to size, weight, etc.

Wilson’s Snipe at Legacy Park, Malibu (Chris Tosdevin 11-19-20)
Definitely not a stint, although technically a sandpiper
  1. Tom Hinnebusch permalink
    September 15, 2021 7:49 am

    For a non-linguist, Chuck, you did a great job on this! Kudos!


    • Chukar permalink*
      September 15, 2021 4:33 pm

      I hope you realize that the four paragraphs of text surround by blue is a quote from the book. I’ll take credit for owning the book and being able to read and type, but I didn’t compose it. The text outside the blue, warts and all, is mine.

      Maybe sometime you’d like to see my chart of the world’s languages, largely based on a book, of course?


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