Birds – Curlews And Whimbrels

The last members of this group that we shall have space to mention are the Curlews and Whimbrels (Numenius), of which there are some nine or ten living and some five or six fossil forms known. They are among the largest of the group, some exceeding two feet in length, with the long legs covered in front with transverse scutella and on the sides and back with small, hexagonal scales, while the very long bill is strongly arched or decurved for the terminal half, the wing being of moderate length and pointed, and the tail rather short and squared. The plumage is largely of a spotted and mottled brown and buff. Four species inhabit North America, a fifth occurring accidentally in Greenland, among the best-known being the Long-billed Curlew (N. americanus), which ranges throughout the whole of North America. It is our largest species, ranging from twenty to twenty-six inches, and may otherwise be distinguished by the rusty cinnamon-colored secondaries and quills, and the deep cinnamon, unbarred axillaries. They frequent marshy and muddy shores of lakes and ponds, but are by no means confined to these locations, being often observed on extensive dry plains and prairies remote from water. They feed on mollusks, insects of various kinds, worms, crustaceans, and crayfish, which they secure by probing with their long bills, and in fall they frequently feed on berries, then becoming very fat and considered excellent eating. Their loud, prolonged whistling note is very commonly heard during the breeding season. The Hudsonian Curlew (N. hudsonicus) is smaller, being only seventeen or eighteen inches long, and may be known by the dusky brown wings and the crown with two broad, lateral stripes of brownish dusky, enclosing a narrower middle stripe of huffy. This species is also found over the whole of North America, but breeds only in the Arctic regions, and winters from the Gulf States to the southern extremity of South America. It keeps more to the coasts during its migrations, but in general resembles the others in habits; its call note, however, is quite distinct. The smallest of our species is the Eskimo Curlew (N. borealis), which has a total length of only thirteen or fourteen inches. It is similar in coloration to the last, but has the crown streaked with dusky and lacks the lighter median stripe. It is found in northern and eastern North America, but breeding only far northward. They were observed abundantly in Labrador by Dr. Coues, who says they associate in “flocks of every size, from three to as many thousands, but generally flies in a loose, straggling manner. Their flight is firm, direct, very swift, when necessary much protracted, and is performed with regular, rapid beats. They never sail, except when about to alight; as their feet touch the ground, their long, pointed wings are raised over their back, until the tips almost touch, and then deliberately folded. Their note is an often-repeated, soft, mellow, though clear, whistle, which may be easily imitated.” He found them feeding almost entirely on the crow-berry (Empetrum), which grows on the hills in the greatest profusion. According to Mr. William Brewster, there is reason to believe that the Eskimo Curlew is now extinct. The only other American species is the Bristle-thighed Curlew (N. tahitiensis), so called from the fact that the thighs are provided with numerous elongated bristles which project far beyond the tips of the feathers. It is confined to the northwest coasts of North America and the Pacific Islands.

The Old World Whimbrel (N. phceopus), which as already stated occurs in Greenland, whereby it comes to be regarded as a North American bird, is similar to the Hudsonian Curlew, but is only seventeen inches in length and has a white rump, which none of the other American species have. It is found throughout Europe generally, its place in eastern Asia, Japan, Korea, etc., being taken by the closely allied Variegated Whimbrel (N. variegatus). Their habits are those of Curlews in general.