An inhabitant of North America, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America. It is strongly migratory; it completely vacates in breeding areas during the snow-bound months. This species favors a variety of habitats including tundra in the north to ponds and mudflats in the south. It feeds on invertebrates often by rapidly probing its bill into mud in a sewing machine fashion. It and the very similar long-billed dowitcher were considered one species until 1950. Field identification of the two American Limnodromus remains difficult today. Distinguishing wintering or juvenile short-billed dowitchers from the long-billed species is very difficult and, even given examination their subtlety different body shapes, cannot always be isolated to a particular species. They differ most substantially in vocalizations. The names of American dowitchers are misleading, as there is much overlap in their bill lengths. Only a small percentage can be identified by this character alone.
Their breeding habitat includes bogs, tidal marshes, mudflats or forest clearings south of the tree line in northern North America. L. g. griseus breeds in northern Quebec; L. g. hendersoni breeds in north central Canada; L. g. caurinus breeds in southern Alaska and southern Yukon.
These birds nest on the ground, usually near water. Their nests are shallow depressions in clumps of grass or moss, which are lined with fine grasses, twigs and leaves. They lay four, sometimes three, olive-buff to brown eggs. Incubation lasts for 21 days and is done by both sexes.
The downy juvenile birds leave the nest soon after hatching. Parental roles are not well known, but it is believed the female departs and leaves the male to tend the chicks, which find all their own food.
They migrate to the southern United States and as far south as Brazil. This bird is more likely to be seen near ocean coasts during migration than the long-billed dowitcher. This species occurs in western Europe only as an extremely rare vagrant.