World Curlew Day – The trials and tribulations of being a Curlew

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If you had to choose which family of waders into which you could be born, surely being a curlew of any kind is not what you’d pick!


Today is World Curlew Day. Unusual though it is to have a ‘world day’ for a single bird family, there are very good reasons for us having one. It is far from being a frivolous self indulgence of those of us who love curlews of any kind. Across the board, birds of the curlew family are in decline and bringing this to the attention of the world will, surely, help to bring about change that will mitigate, halt and ultimately reverse this trend.

These wonderful and charismatic birds are in trouble. Not just our familiar Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata, all curlews, across the planet, are struggling. Two of them, the Eskimo Curlew N. borealis and Slender-billed Curlew N. tenuirostris, although officially still Critically Endangered seem to have given up the fight and disappeared; they are now probably Extinct.

The Eskimo Curlew was an incredibly abundant species. It used to migrate from Alaska and North-western Canada where it bred, across the North American continent in a south westerly direction and gathered on the north eastern shores. From there they would launch out across the North Atlantic Ocean, south, towards South America and then on to the southern cone of that continent. On their return they would take a more westerly course which would see them head up the centre of the north American continent, and there they were slaughtered in their millions. However it was probably not merely their shooting that saw them dwindle to extinction in a few short years. The Prairies on which they depended were altered by human population and agriculture and the Rocky Mountain Locusts that they ate became extinct.  The last known specimen was shot in 1963 in Barbados.


Eskimo Curlew. Specimen in Tring Bird Collection. BNHM.

Slender-billed Curlews were never as abundant as the Eskimo Curlews, however they did formerly appear in northern Africa in good numbers. Their breeding grounds were something of a mystery and thought to be solely in the Taiga region. However even after they had disappeared from there as breeding birds they still showed up in North Africa in their hundreds, indicating they bred elsewhere too. That location was never verified but is thought to have been in the Steppes. The numbers occurring in North Africa, particularly Morocco, dwindled until in the mid to late 1990’s they stopped coming. Since then there have been sporadic sightings, but the last accepted record by national rarities committee was in Hungary in 2001.Again they are officially Critically Endangered, but in all likelihood are now extinct.


Slender-billed Curlew. Specimen in Tring Bird Collection. BNHM.


Much has been written and published lately about the Near Threatened status of the Eurasian Curlew N. arquata. It has almost completly disappeared from Ireland as a breeding species with 97% of the population now gone. In the British Isles they have fared nearly as badly with a decline of 80% in Wales and 50% across England and Scotland. The disappearance of this species as a breeding bird in Britain and Ireland has been masked by the fact that, in general, we meet Curlews in the winter when their population is bolstered by around 150,000 visitors from the continent. This apparent abundance masks the decline in our native breeding population which few of us get the opportunity to observe. It is something of a tragedy, and nothing short of shameful, that this species is still legitimate quarry for hunters on the shores of France in the winter, along with other Near Threatened species such as Black-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Northern lapwing all in the name of cultural tradition. The breeding decline has been brought about primarily due to loss of breeding habitat due to changes in farming practices.


Eurasian Curlew. Norfolk, England.

The other curlew species, all of which are to be found mainly on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, are also in decline, they are; the Far Eastern Curlew N. madagascariensis (Endangered); Bristle-thighed Curlew N. tahitiensis (Vulnerable); Long-billed Curlew N. americanus (Least Concern – but see below).

The Far Eastern Curlew, the largest Curlew (by 1cm) from the Long-billed Curlew, uses the East Asian-Australasian Flyway which includes the infamous Yellow Sea region. The shores of this region have been destroyed at a devastating rate, resulting in this species’ rapid decline and thus, it has little hope of a recovery any time soon. A lifeline has been sent by the Chinese government however, as they have currently halted and even reversed some decisions regarding the development of the intertidal zone. It’s scientific name is erroneous as the bird does not occur, nor ever has, in Madagascar which is not in the Far East. The name derives from a mistake made by Linnaeus when he misread the label for Macassar, Sulawesi, where the species does exist as a winter visitor. It is a facet of scientific nomenclature that we retain the first given scientific name even if, as in this case, it is clearly inappropriate.


Far Eastern Curlew. Queensland, Australia.

The Bristle-thighed Curlew has a population of around 7,000 and is thought to be declining mainly due to predation and hunting on the wintering grounds on the South Pacific islands where, unusually among waders, during their moult around half of the adults are rendered flightless for a time. This species winters exclusively in the Pacific Islands and breeds in Alaska, a most unusual migration arrangement.


Bristle-thighed Curlew. Hawaii, USA. 

Although considered of Least Concern, the Long-billed Curlew, is also in decline. Its range is contracting westwards having disappeared as a breeding bird from Michigan; Illinois; Wisconsin; Iowa; Kansas; E. Nebraska; Manitoba; S. E. Saskatchewan. So, once again, if you had to choose to be a curlew species, would this be the one? It has a large range, there are good numbers still and the decline is not rapid nor dramatic enough to cause concern… yet.


Long-billed Curlew. California, USA.

But wait! What is that diminutive creature lurking in the shadows? existing almost unnoticed among the large and imposing Curlews of which we have spoken? It is the Little Curlew N. minutus (Least Concern). Also to be found in the Pacific region, this remarkable little bird has a stable population. Surely this must be the Curlew of choice for those with a view to survival. On the other hand, I fear for the future of these birds. If you consider that the remaining species in the genus Numenius are called Whimbrel, both of which are of Least Concern (Eurasian Whimbrel N. phaeopus and Hudsonian Whimbrel N. hudsonicus – formerly a subspecies of N. phaeopus) perhaps the name affords some sort of charmed protection? If this is the case then the change of popular name from Little Whimbrel (as it was known when I twitched the Salthouse bird in the 1980’s) to Little Curlew could well bring about a change in this bird’s fortunes.


Little Curlew. Western Australia, Australia.

Eurasian Whimbrel, Western Region, The Gambia.


Hudsonian Whimbrel, Antofagasta, Chile.

Adapted and updated from a previous blog.