Birds – Long Billed Curlew

(Numenius longirostris)


Length—24 inches; bill of extreme length, about 6 inches, sometimes 8 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts buff or pale rufous and black; the head and neck streaked; the back, wings, and tail barred or mottled with cinnamon, buff, and blackish; under parts buff; the breast streaked, and the sides often barred with black. Long, black bill, curved downward like a sickle; long legs and feet, dark.

Range—Temperate North America; nesting in the south Atlantic states and in the interior so far as Hudson Bay, or mostly throughout its range; winters from Florida and Texas to the West Indies and Guatemala.

Season—Summer resident in the interior; an irregular summer visitor on Atlantic coast north of the Carolinas; migratory north-ward to the prairies of the great northwest.

The extraordinary bill of the curlew, curving in the opposite direction from the avocet’s, serves the same purpose, however, and drags small crabs and other shell fish that have buried themselves in the wet sand, snails, larvae, and worms from their holes, the blades acting like a forceps. Beetles, grasshoppers, and flying food seized on the prairies; berries, and particularly dewberries, complete the curlew’s menu. The entire bill so far as the nostrils, notwithstanding its extreme length, often sinks through the soft sand or mud to probe for some coveted dainty. The curlew, the avocet, the sea parrot, and the skimmer vie with each other in possessing the queerest freak of a bill.

Large flocks of curlews, flying in wedge-shaped battalions, like geese, with some veteran, a loud, hoarse whistler, in the lead, evidently migrate up our coast to the St. Lawrence and across Canada, to disperse over the broad prairies of the northwest. Not at all dependent on water, however truly their bills indicate that nature intended them for shore birds, they are quite as likely to alight on dry, grassy uplands as on the muddy flats of lower water courses. ” Their flight is not rapid, but well sustained, with regular strokes of the wings,” says Goss; ” and when going a distance, usually high, in a triangular form, uttering now and then their loud, prolonged whistling note, so often heard during the breeding season. Before alighting, they suddenly drop nearly to the ground, then gather, and with a rising sweep, gracefully alight.” Flocks on their way south stop to rest awhile on Long Island any time from July to September.

Wherever the curlew strays, its large size and unusual bill make it conspicuous. It is a shy and wary bird, impossible to stalk when feeding, but responsive to an imitation of its call, and coming readily to decoys. In the interior, sportsmen declare the flesh is well worth shooting; but on the coast, north or south, even its odor is rank. Evidently there is a truly strong attachment between members of the same flock, as there is among many sand-pipers, for the cries of wounded and dying victims draw the agonized sympathizers back to the spot where they lie, although a second discharge may bring them the same fate.

Three or four clay colored eggs, shaped like a barnyard hen’s, but spotted with fine marks of chocolate brown, are found in a depression of the ground. Great numbers of nests are made on the south Atlantic coast and also on the prairies of the north-west, a strange division of habitat indeed for young chicks.

Whimbrel, Striped-head, and Crooked-bill, the Hudsonian Short-billed or Jack Curlew (Numenius hudsonicus), with a bill only three or four inches long to bring the entire length of the bird to sixteen or eighteen inches, has blackish brown upper parts mottled with buff, most conspicuous on wing coverts; the crown dusky brown, with a buff central stripe; the rest of head, neck, and under parts light buff; a brownish streak running through the eye, and the neck and breast spotted with brown. Flying up the Atlantic coast from Patagonia, the southern limits of its winter quarters, the jack curlew sometimes loiters awhile in May on our mud flats and marshes before continuing in V-shaped flocks up to the south shore of the St. Lawrence (but not across it), then due north to Hudson Bay, where the nests are built. Evidently nesting duties are soon ended, for returning migrants commonly reach Long Island from July to October. No one has a good reason to give for shooting these birds, yet it is certain that whereas they were once abundant they are now almost rare.

The Eskimo Curlew, Fute, Doe or Dough Bird, Short-billed or Little Curlew (Numenius borealis); about thirteen inches long, its short, decurved bill measuring less than two and a half inches, has blackish brown upper parts spotted with buff; the crown streaked, but without the distinct central line that marks the head of the Jack curlew; the under parts buffy or whitish, the breast streaked; the sides and under wing coverts barred with black. En route from the Arctic regions, where it nests, to Patagonia, where it winters, this is a very common species at times. The prairie lands adjacent to the Mississippi, its favorite highway, hold “immense flocks ” in August and later, it is said; but very few stragglers reach the Atlantic shores. Just as the Jack curlew scrapes acquaintance with the willet, godwit, and other sandpipers on our beaches, so this curlew associates with the upland “plover,” the golden plover, and other birds of the interior in this country and on the pampas covered plains of the Argentine Republic. In the Barren Grounds and across the continent from Greenland to Behring Straits, the Eskimo curlew nests. Its whistle is less harsh and loud than its long-billed cousin’s, but in their habits generally these three curlews are alike.