TURNSTONE, the name long given [1] to a shore-bird, from its habit of turning over with its bill such stones as it can to seek its food in the small crustaceans or other animals lurking beneath them. It is the Tringa interpres[2] of Linnaeus and Strepsilas interpres of most later writers, and is remarkable as being perhaps the most cosmopolitan of birds; for, through properly belonging to the northern hemisphere, there is scarcely a sea-coast in the world on which may not occur: it has been obtained from Spitzbergen to the Strait of Magellan and from Point Barrow to the Cape of Good Hope and New Zealand—examples from the southern hemisphere being, however, almost invariably in a state of plumage that shows, if not immaturity, yet an ineptitude for reproduction. It also, though much less commonly, resorts to the margins of inland rivers and lakes; but it is very rarely seen except near water, and salt water for preference.

The turnstone is about as big as an ordinary snipe; but, compared with most of its allies of the group Limicolae, to which it belongs, its form is somewhat heavy, and its legs are short. Still it is brisk in its movements, and its variegated plumage makes it a pleasing bird. Seen in front, its white face, striped with black, and broad black gorget attract attention as it sits, often motionless, on the rocks; while in flight the white of the lower part of the back and white band across the wings are no less conspicuous even at a distance. A nearer view will reveal the rich chestnut of the mantle and upper wing-coverts, and the combination of colours thus exhibited suggests the term “tortoise-shell” often applied to it—the quill-feathers being mostly of a dark brown and its lower parts pure white. The deeper tints are, however, peculiar to the nuptial plumage, or are only to be faintly traced at other times, so that in winter the adults—and the young always—have a much plainer appearance, ashy-grey and white being almost the only hues observable. From the fact that turnstones may be met with at almost any season in various parts of the world, and especially on islands on the Canaries, Azores, and many of those in the British seas, it has been inferred that these birds may breed in such places. In some cases this may prove to be true, but in most evidence to that effect is wanting. In America the breeding-range of this species has not been defined. In Europe there is good reason to suppose that it includes Shetland; but it is on the north-western coast of the Continent, from Jutland to the extreme north of Norway, that the greatest number are reared. The nest, contrary to the habits of most Limicolae, is generally placed under under a ledge of rock which shelters the bird from observation,[3] and therein are laid four eggs, of a light-olive green, closely blotched with brown, and hardly to be mistaken for those of any other bird. A second species of turnstone is admitted by some authors and denied by others. This is the S. melanocephalus of the Pacific coast of North America, which is on the average larger than S. interpres, and never exhibits any of the chestnut colouring.

Though the genus Strepsilas seems to be rightly placed among the Charadriidae (see Plover), it occupies a somewhat abnormal position among them, and in the form of its short pointed beak and its variegated coloration has hardly any near relatives.  (A. N.) 

  1. The name seems to appear first in F. Willughby’s Ornithologia (p. 231) in 1676; but he gave as an alias that of Sea-Dottrel, under which name a drawing, figured by him (pl. 58), was sent by him by Sir Thomas Browne.
  2. Linnaeus (Oel. och Gothländska Resa, p. 217), who first met with this bird on the island of Gottland (July 1, 1741), was under the mistaken belief that it was there called Tolk ( = interpres). But that name properly belongs to the Redshank (q.v.), from the cry of warning to other animals that it utters on the approach of danger.
  3. There is little external difference between the sexes, and the brightly contrasted colours of the hen-bird seem to require some kind of concealment.