The Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis) is widely believed to be extinct. It formerly bred in the treeless high Arctic tundra from western Alaska to northwestern Canada and wintered in the pampas grasslands of central Argentina and southern Brazil. In spring, migrating Eskimo Curlews returned to the Arctic via the North American prairies, mainly west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rockies. In late summer, they moved eastward to staging areas from coastal Labrador to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where they fed almost exclusively on berries (especially crowberries) and snails. After putting on adequate fat reserves, the curlews would continue on to their wintering grounds in southern South America, some of them possibly stopping over in Bermuda or the West Indies but others probably continuing non-stop to South America. The species was apparently always rare in North America south of Long Island. During migration, Eskimo Curlews were almost always associated with American Golden Plovers (Pluvialis dominica).
This species was at one time extraordinarily abundant, with enormous flocks of migrating Eskimo Curlews darkening the skies of the North American Great Plains in spring en route to their Arctic breeding grounds and in fall en route from their breeding grounds to their fall staging grounds in eastern Canada. However, between 1850 and 1875 market and sport hunting ravaged the population and the Eskimo Curlew was nearly extinct by the early 20th century. In addition to intense hunting pressure, possible causes that have been suggested as having exacerbated this radical decline include suppression of wildfires (burned areas were favored in spring) and the extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust, an important spring food. The last confirmed Eskimo Curlew records were a bird photographed in Texas in the spring of 1962 and one shot in Barbados in September of 1963.
(Kaufman 1996; O'Brien et al. 2006)
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Breeding
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Breeding
Global Range: (<100-250 square km (less than about 40-100 square miles)) BREEDING: confirmed in only two areas in Northwest Territories: base of Bathurst Peninsula, and near Point Lake, 750 kilometers southeast; probably between these areas as well. Possibly west to western Alaska (Gill et al. 1998). NON-BREEDING: formerly from south-central Brazil south through Paraguay and Uruguay to southern Argentina and Chile. MIGRATION: formerly in spring through central plains, west of Mississippi River; in fall, most flew east to Labrador , then over water to South America.
Canada,Central & South America
Length: 36 cm
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: Nonbreeding: grasslands, pastures, plowed fields, and less frequently, marshes and mudflats (AOU 1983). Favored headlands and hills within a few kilometers of the sea. Burned over prairies and marshes particularly attractive during migration. Roosted on beaches along coast but rarely found near water in midwestern states (Gollop et al. 1986).
Nests in open arctic tundra, usually in an open site with a wide view (Harrison 1978). Upland grassy tundra or tundra interspersed with scattered trees (Johnson and Herter 1989). Tundra marshes and tidal marshes near Arctic Ocean (Matthews and Moseley 1990).
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Probably began northward migration in late February or March. Arrived in breeding areas beginning in late May in Alaska and Northwest Territories; migrated inland through central prairies of North America (along valleys of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte rivers) in spring, arriving in Texas and Louisiana in early March (most likely to be observed in March and April), and migrating through the Great Plains from late March to mid-May; remained in nesting areas until early August; in fall, most migrated eastward from breeding areas and across northern Hudson Bay to Labrador and Newfoundland (most likely present from mid-August to late September), where they fed prior to flight across Atlantic to northern South America (perhaps arriving in October), thence along coast to wintering areas; some birds migrated southward along west shore of Hudson and James bays, then southeastward across Quebec and northeastern states before crossing the Atlantic (Gollop et al. 1986, Johnson and Herter 1989). Storm-blown migrants could appear on the coast of the Canadian Atlantic provinces, New England, or Bermuda from late August to mid-October.
Comments: Recorded foods include grasshoppers and their eggs, crickets, grubs and cutworms, ants, moths, spiders, small snails, earthworms, freshwater insects, seeds and berries (e.g., crowberry, EMPETRUM) (USFWS 1980, Gollop et al. 1986). Picks items from substrate, probes into sand or mud in or near shallow water, or takes prey from water column (Ehrlich et al. 1992).
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 0 - 5
Comments: No known breeding occurrences; possibly extinct.
Zero to 50 individuals
Comments: Global population estimated to be less than 50, if the species is still extant (Morrison et al. 2001). Occasional unsubstantiated sightings offer hope that the species is still extant; latest of these was of a bird seen in southwestern Manitoba, May 1996 (Waldon 1966, Gill et al. 1998). Latest records from wintering grounds (again unsubstantiated) were of four birds near Cordoba, Argentina, October 1990 (Michelutti 1991). Four "apparently reliable" sightings in Texas in 1987 (Gollop 1988).
Most recent reliable sightings were at three separate locations in 1987: Mormon Island, Nebraska; Lac Rendezvous, Northwest Territories; and North Haven Island, Maine; only single birds were observed. A flock of 23 was observed on Atkinson Island, Texas in 1981. See Johnson and Herter (1989) for account of sightings in 1980s in Beaufort Sea area. See Gollop et al. (1986) for accounts of occurrences in individual states, provinces, and countries. See also Faanes and Senner (1991). Surveys in Argentina and Uruguay in 1992-1993 yielded no confirmed sightings, but previously unknown suitable habitat was found (Blanco et al. 1993; Castro et al. 1994, Endangered Species Update 11(3&4):5).
Life History and Behavior
Lays clutch of 3-4 (usually 4) eggs, late May-June or early July.
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2012Critically Endangered
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NHB - Possibly Extirpated
Rounded National Status Rank: NHB - Possibly Extirpated
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: GH - Possibly Extinct
Reasons: Formerly abundant, now nearly extinct or perhaps extinct; no recovery of depleted populations after hunting stopped; winter and migratory stopover habitat lost and degraded due to agriculture and commercial development; present breeding and wintering areas unknown; no reliable sightings since 1987.
Intrinsic Vulnerability: Moderately vulnerable
Environmental Specificity: Very narrow. Specialist or community with key requirements scarce.
Date Listed: 03/11/1967
Lead Region: Alaska Region (Region 7)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Numenius borealis , see its USFWS Species Profile
Global Short Term Trend: Unknown
Global Long Term Trend: Decline of >90%
Comments: Declined from a population originally numbering in the hundreds of thousands (Gill et al. 1998). Marked decline began around 1870, began decreasing rapidly in 1880s (Gill et al. 1998); already rare by 1900 and thought to be extinct in 1905. Last specimen taken in Barbados in 1963 (Bond 1965). Now extremely rare or extinct (Gollop et al. 1986, Gill et al. 1998, Morrison et al. 2001).
Degree of Threat: Very high - high
Comments: Decline almost certainly due to a combination of overhunting on spring migration for commercial markets and conversion of spring migration habitat to agriculture (Faanes and Senner 1990, Gill et al. 1998). Spring migration route through tallgrass and to a lesser extent mixed-grass prairies; only 4 percent of the former ecosystem remains (Samson and Knopf 1994). Fire suppression has further altered remnant prairie ecosystems. Agricultural conversion also apparently caused the demise of what may have been a key prey species during spring migration, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, MELANOPLUS SPRETUS (Gill et al. 1998), and probably resulted in declines in other grasshopper species as well (Lockwood and DeBrey 1990, Gill et al. 1998).
Any recovery has been hampered by this species' former reliance on shifting, patchy, fire-dependent habitats during spring migration, its conservative life history (e.g. long migration with few, but strictly traditional stopover sites), and its highly social behavior (Gill et al. 1998). Former breeding range has now apparently been taken over by the slightly larger Whimbrel, which may displace the few remaining individuals (Gollop et al. 1986). The recent expansion of diamond exploration activities and establishment of diamond mines within the known breeding range of this species may put additional pressure on any remnant population (Gill et al. 1998).
CITES Appendix I. CMS Appendix I and II. It is protected in the USA, Canada, Argentina and Mexico. Its status has been fully documented, and identification details publicised (Gill et al. 1998). Breeding and wintering areas have been surveyed, and reported breeding sites investigated (Blanco et al. 1993, Gill et al. 1998, C. L. Gratto-Trevor in litt. 1999). An Environment Canada species recovery plan recommends that no recovery action be undertaken other than continued monitoring of reported sightings (Environment Canada 2007). Conservation Actions Proposed
Continue cooperative international assessments of historical sites (Blanco et al. 1993, C. L. Gratto-Trevor in litt. 1999). Survey heath tundra along the Labrador coast during August-September and historic breeding grounds prior to the initiation of development projects (C. L. Gratto-Trevor in litt. 1999). Investigate any credible sightings (C. L. Gratto-Trevor in litt. 1999). Expand prairie habitat, and employ prescribed burnings (C. L. Gratto-Trevor in litt. 1999).
Global Protection: None. No occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Needs: Protect any breeding, wintering, or migration areas that may be discovered.
The Eskimo curlew or the northern curlew is one of eight species of curlew, and is classed in the genus Numenius. It was one of the most numerous shorebirds in the tundra of western arctic Canada and Alaska, with approximately two million birds killed per year in the late 1800s. Having not been seen in over 30 years, the Eskimo curlew is now considered possibly extinct. The bird was about 30 cm (12 in) long and fed mostly on berries.
The Eskimo curlew is one of eight species of curlew, and is classed with them in the genus Numenius. It was formerly placed in the separate genus Mesoscolopax. Numenius is classed in the family Scolopacidae. Other species in that family include woodcocks, phalaropes, snipes, and sandpipers. Scolopacidae is a Charadriiform lineage.
The species was described by Johann Reinhold Forster in 1772. The generic name has three possible etymologies. One is that it comes from the Greek "noumenios". "Noumenios" means "of the new moon", the thin beak of this curlew being compared to a thin crescent moon. A second possibility is that the genus name is derived from the word numen, meaning "nod", and referring to this species head being bent forward and down. The final possibility is that Numenius is a Latinized form of the Greek noumenios, which was the word Diogenes Laertius used to refer to a species of curlew. The specific name "borealis" is Latin for "northern".
Eskimo curlews are small curlews, about 30 centimeters in length. Adults have long dark greyish legs and a long bill curved slightly downward. The upperparts are mottled brown and the underparts are light brown. They show cinnamon wing linings in flight. They are similar in appearance to the Hudsonian curlew, the American subspecies of the whimbrel, but smaller in size.
In the field, the only certain way to distinguish the Eskimo curlew is confirmation of its unbarred undersides of the primaries. The call is poorly understood, but includes clear whistling sounds.
Distribution and habitat
Eskimo curlews migrated to the pampas of Argentina in the late summer and returned in February. They formerly were very rare vagrants to western Europe, but there have been no recent records. In Britain, there are four records, all from the nineteenth century.
A comparison of dates and migratory patterns has led some to conjecture that Eskimo curlews and American golden plover are the shorebirds that attracted the attention of Christopher Columbus to nearby land after 65 days at sea and out of sight of land on his first voyage. In the 1800s millions of Eskimo curlews followed migration routes from the present Yukon and Northwest Territories, flying east along the northern shore of Canada, then south over the Atlantic Ocean to South America in the winter. When returning to North America, they would fly north through the Great Plains.
Ecology and behavior
Eskimo curlews picked up food by sight, as well as feeding by probing. They ate mostly berries while on the fall migration in Canada. During the rest of their migration and on the breeding grounds, they ate insects. Snails and other invertebrates also were part of their diet during migration.
The specific incubation behavior of this species is unknown. It is not certain which sex if not both incubated, nor what the specific timeline was. These birds evidently did not attack intruders approaching their nests, which provides reason to believe that their nests were far apart from each other.
At one time, the Eskimo curlew may have been one of the most numerous shorebirds in North America, with a population in the millions. As many as 2 million birds per year were killed near the end of the nineteenth century. The last confirmed sightings were in 1962 on Galveston Island, Texas (photographed) and on Barbados in 1963 (specimen). There was a reliable report of 23 birds in Texas in 1981, and more recent additional unconfirmed reports from Texas, Canada (1987), Argentina (1990), and Nova Scotia (2006). No confirmed record of this species has been reported in South America since 1939. It has been suggested that the species not be treated as extinct until all possible remaining habitats have been surveyed and incidental sightings have ceased, and an assessment of Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) be adopted in the meantime. Full details on all sightings up to 1986 are included in the online edition of Eskimo Curlew: A Vanishing Species?
In popular culture
A contemporary novel by Roger Real Drouin, No Other Way, concerns a nature photographer seeking a northern curlew and was published in 2012 by Moonshine Cove Publishing. The subject bird is believed extinct and last documented in 1962, sharing all of the same ornithological and natural history characteristics of this bird, albeit referred to as "stilted".
- BirdLife International (2013). "Numenius borealis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- South American Classification Committee American Ornithologists' Union. "A classification of the bird species of South America Part 02". Retrieved 2008-01-12.
- "Coraciiformes". zoonomen.net. Retrieved 2007-12-21.
- Terres, John K. (1980). The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. p. 769. ISBN 0-394-46651-9.
- Gollop, J.B.; Barry, T.W. and Iverson, E.H. (1986). "A Curlew By Many Other Names". Eskimo Curlew A Vanishing Species?. Nature Saskatchewan. Retrieved 2008-01-12.
- Terres, John K. (1980). The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. p. 776. ISBN 0-394-46651-9.
- Ellis, Richard (2004). No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species. New York: Harper Perennial. p. 178. ISBN 0-06-055804-0.
- Townsend, Charles W. (1933). "Sight Records of the Eskimo Curlew". Auk 50 (2): 214. doi:10.2307/4076883.
- Gollop, J.B., ed. (1986). Eskimo Curlew: A Vanishing Species?. Nature Saskatchewan Saskatchewan Natural History Society.
- Melling, Tim (2010). "The Eskimo Curlew in Britain". British Birds 103 (2): 80–92.
- Kaufman, Kenn (1996). Lives of North American Birds. ISBN 0-395-77017-3.
- Gollop, J.B.; Barry, T.W. and Iverson, E.H. (1986). "Life History – Briefly Stated". Eskimo Curlew A Vanishing Species?. Nature Saskatchewan. Retrieved 2008-01-12.
- Drouin, Roger Real, No Other Way, Moonshine Cove Publishing, 2012
- IBAMA (2003). Lista das Espécies da Fauna Brasileira Ameaçadas de Extinção. Accessed 2010/07/14.
- Eskimo Curlew: A Vanishing Species?
- del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (editors) (1996): Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 3: Hoatzin to auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-22-9
- National Geographic Society (2002): Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic, Washington DC. ISBN 0-7922-6877-6
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Considered conspecific with Asiatic Numenius minutus by some authors (AOU 1983).
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