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Overview

Brief Summary

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)

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Distribution

Range Description

Numenius borealis bred at (and presumably between) the Bathurst peninsula and Point Lake in Northwest Territories, Canada (Gill et al. 1998), and perhaps also Alaska, USA. Birds migrated across Hudson Bay to Labrador (and New England, USA), and through the Caribbean to Argentina (especially the Pampas), and possibly Uruguay, Paraguay (R. Clay in litt. 2003), southernmost Brazil and Chile south to Patagonia (Gill et al. 1998). The return migration was probably along the Pacific coast, through Central America, across the Gulf of Mexico to the Texas coast and northwards through the prairies. It probably numbered hundreds of thousands, but declined rapidly in the 1870s-1890s to become very rare in the 20th century (Gill et al. 1998, Graves 2010). The last irrefutable record was of a specimen collected in Barbados in 1963 (Roberts et al. 2010). Since then there have been no confirmed records (none from the wintering grounds in South America since 1939), only several unconfirmed reports during 1981-2006 (Gill et al. 1998, M. Parr in litt. 2003, C. L. Gratto-Trevor in litt. 2004, R. Hoffman in litt. 2006, N. Crockford in litt. 2008), with the latest unconfirmed sighting from Barbados in September 2012 (E. Reed in litt. 2012). The population (if one persists) must be tiny (Gill et al. 1998).

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Caribbean; North America; migrates along the east coast in the fall
  • North-West Atlantic Ocean species (NWARMS)
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Caribbean; North America; migrates along the east coast in the fall
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Source: World Register of Marine Species

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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Unknown/Undetermined

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Breeding

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Unknown/Undetermined

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Breeding

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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.

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Range

Canadian Arctic; winters to s South America (possibly extinct).
  • Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2014. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.9. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/

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Historic Range:
Canada,Central & South America

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Physical Description

Size

Length: 36 cm

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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
It bred (May-August) in treeless arctic tundra at 180-335 m, comprising grassy meadows with birch (Betula) and sedge (Carex) (Gill et al. 1998). On autumn migration (July-October), it favoured ericaceous heath, crowberries Empetrum nigrum, pastures and intertidal flats (Gill et al. 1998). Winter habitat was possibly wet pampas grasslands, intertidal and semi-desert areas (Gill et al. 1998). On return migration (March-May), it favoured burnt areas in tall grass and mixed-grass prairies, and Rocky Mountain Grasshopper Melanoplus spretus was a key food source (Gill et al. 1998). It was gregarious, with traditional autumn migration sites (Gill et al. 1998).


Systems
  • Terrestrial
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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).

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Migration

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.

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Trophic Strategy

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).

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Population Biology

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.

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Global Abundance

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).

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Life History and Behavior

Reproduction

Lays clutch of 3-4 (usually 4) eggs, late May-June or early July.

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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
CR
Critically Endangered

Red List Criteria
D

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2015

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Symes, A.

Contributor/s
Clay, R., Crockford, N., Gill, R.E., Gratto-Trevor, C., Hoffman, R., Parr, M. & Reed, E.

Justification
This species has not been recorded with certainty since 1963 (and none have been confirmed on the wintering grounds since 1939). It was formerly abundant, but declined rapidly over a century ago as a result of hunting and habitat loss. However, it cannot yet be presumed to be Extinct until all potential breeding areas have been surveyed, and the series of occasional unconfirmed reports ceases. Any remaining population is likely to be tiny, and for these reasons it is treated as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).


History
  • 2013
    Critically Endangered (CR)
  • 2012
    Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Threatened (T)