Eskimo curlew

Eskimo Curlew—In addition to existing in huge numbers, the Eskimo curlew annually tackled one of the most arduous migrations in the natural world. (Renata Cunha)

Scientific name: Numenius borealis
Scientific classification:
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
When did it become extinct? The Eskimo curlew is thought to have become extinct around 1970.
Where did it live? In the northern summer, the Eskimo curlew spent its time in the Canadian subarctic. Its wintering grounds were the Argentinean Pampas, south of Buenos Aires.

The story of the Eskimo curlew is a sad tale of greed and senseless waste and a perfect example of how destructive our species can be. The Eskimo curlew was a small wading bird, no more than 30 cm long, with an elegant, 5-cm-long beak. Like the other curlew species, the Eskimo curlew had a distinctive, beautiful call, and the Inuit name for this bird, pi-pi pi-uk, is an imitation of the sound they made on the wing and on the ground. The Eskimo curlew may have been a small bird, but it was one of the most accomplished globetrotter that has ever graced the skies. Like many other species of wading bird, this curlew spent its time between northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. Traveling between the two was no mean feat, and the small birds had to embark on one of  the most complex and dangerous migrations in the animal kingdom. As the short, northern summer ended and the curlew’s young had been reared, the birds took to wing for the beginning of an arduous and dangerous journey. Its migration took it in an immense clockwise circle, starting from the subarctic Canadian tundra, through the Western Hemisphere and east through Labrador, down through the Atlantic and across the southern Caribbean. The birds continued this epic journey until they reached their wintering grounds on the Argentinean Pampas. Some of the migrating birds went even further, eventually reaching Chile. The birds would spend a few months in South America until the spring returned to the north and the pull of hundreds of thousands of years of habitual behavior forced them into the air, enmasse, for the return leg. The return to the breeding grounds took them through Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska. Completing such an arduous migration, nonstop, was an impossible task, so the enormous flock often alighted to refuel. The prairies of the Midwest were favored refueling stops, and the birds used their long bills to probe the soil for insect eggs, larvae, and pupae. Interestingly, it is thought that these refueling stops were heavily dependent on the Rocky Mountain locust, another extinct animal that once lived in unparalleled aggregations. The risks of this journey were varied and grave. The North Atlantic is ravaged by storms, and each year, many of the curlews were blown off course to fi nd themselves alone and hungry in the cold expanse of the North Atlantic. Some stragglers even found their way to Britain and the decks of Atlantic ships. It seems that the entire world population of Eskimo curlew lived and traveled as one immense flock, which, at its peak, probably numbered in the millions. There is protection in numbers, but each year, many individuals were undoubtedly picked off by predators or perished due to exhaustion. These risks were intensified massively when Europeans started to settle North America. Because the curlew flew in such great flocks, the settlers called them prairie pigeons, recalling the enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that blotted out the sun in eastern North America. There are accounts of an Eskimo curlew flock of 1860 measuring more than 1 km long and wide. Any animal that is edible and exists in huge numbers quickly attracts the attention of hunters, and unfortunately, the curlew was both of these things. The curlew may have seemed numerous, but the enormous flock the hunters preyed on was the entire global population of this bird, and hunting quickly took its toll. During the birds’ feeding stops on their long route north, the hunters would close in on the flock and, sensing danger, the birds would take to the wing, an effective defense against land predators and birds of prey but completely useless against shotguns. The birds were so tightly spaced as they left the ground that a single blast from a shotgun, with its wide spread of shot, could easily kill 15 to 20 individuals. The birds were shot in such huge numbers that countless numbers of them were simply left to rot in big piles. The rest were taken away, piled high on horse-pulled carts. Such senseless slaughter of the Eskimo curlew on its northbound journey was bad enough, but it was not long before the hunters turned their attention to the birds’ breeding grounds. During the northern summer, in anticipation of their long migration south, the birds fed on the swarms of insects that plague the tundra in the fleeting warmth, and as a result, they grew very fat. Hunters called these well-fed birds “doughbirds,” and even these were not safe. The hunters would fi nd their roosting grounds and slaughter them under the cover  of darkness, using lanterns to dazzle them and sticks to club them. The fattened birds that survived took to the wing for the start of their migration, but gales would often blow them into New England, and this was the signal for every man with a gun to come out and harvest the poor animals. In the 1830s and 1840s, the birds were blown off course and ended up in Nantucket. The populace killed the birds so mercilessly that the island’s supply of powder and shot ran dry, interrupting the slaughter. Under such intense hunting pressure, the Eskimo curlew was doomed. In 1900, Paul Hoagland was hunting with his father near Clarks, Nebraska. They scared 70 Eskimo curlews into taking flight and followed them to a newly plowed fi eld. They killed 34 of the birds with four shots. In 1911, the same man came across eight of the birds, and he killed seven of them. Reduced from an enormous flock covering an area equivalent to around 38 football fields, this sorry collection of birds was the last to be seen in Nebraska. Since 1900, 20 Eskimo curlews have been collected by ornithologists, and in 1964, the last confirmed individual of this species was shot in Barbados. Lonely individuals may still plow the old migration routes, but it is very likely this species is gone for good.

• Hunting undoubtedly had a huge eff ect on the Eskimo curlew, but it is also thought that agriculture played a role in its demise. Much of the fertile prairie, the curlew’s refueling ground, was turned over to agriculture, and many of the insects on which the birds fed dwindled in numbers. One example is the Rocky Mountain locust, which once lived in swarms of staggering dimensions.

• Birds that live in flocks depend on strength in numbers for protection. A lone curlew would stand little or no chance of evading predators during its arduous migratory flight. If any Eskimo curlews still remain, their continued survival will be fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Further Reading: Johnsgard, P. A. “Where Have All the Curlews Gone?” Natural History 89 (1980):
30–33.

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