In chapter 5 of She Wore a Yellow Dress, I describe my first date back in 1965 with a fellow Hull University undergraduate who eventually became my wife. She engagingly asked about my favorite hobby, and when I said it was bird watching, she wanted to know the name of my best-loved bird. Enthusiastically, I told her it was the curlew because of its large and golden appearance, its mesmerizing summertime call of cur-lee cur-lee cur-lee, and its behavior when protecting its nest. I was familiar with these birds because pairs often bred in waterlogged grassland fields close to our family farm house near York. During my youth, I would visit the fields, hide behind the hedgerows (long since removed), hoping to spot the parents and identify the location of their nest. Curlews are highly secretive. They prefer sites hidden by long grass, and usually leave the nest by taking flight some distance away from where they are nesting. They also pretend to be injured, dragging a wing behind them as they leave the pasture to persuade you to follow them. Additionally, their coloring provides camouflage. When I eventually found the nest, it would usually contain either four dark olive-green eggs with brown markings, or baby chicks.
And who could not be mesmerized by the distant sound of these birds as they poured out their distinctive haunting, bubbling call, like a kettle rising to the boil but never quite getting there. The sound often continued late into the night.
Today, regrettably, because many of these fields are drained, and sometimes no longer grass, the curlew has left, and the birds’ survival is in doubt. Much of their territory has been lost in the west of the country, and virtually none breed across lowland England.
Curlews are migratory large wading birds, mottled brown and gray, with long bluish-colored legs, and very distinctive long down-curved bills. The bill length is approximately 6 inches (15 cm). In the UK, pairs nest on the ground in wet pasture, and on moorland and heathland, and in marshes. They are site-faithful, returning to the same location each year so long as conditions remain suitable, and their chicks often establish nesting sites nearby. The species is omnivorous, eating both plants and invertebrates, and are often seen probing the soggy ground with their long bills to find worms, grubs, and insects. The bill is longer than their tongue and acts like a pair of tweezers or chopsticks as they extract food from the ground. They may then toss it in the air and catch it on their tongue before swallowing it.
Eurasian curlew feeding
Because of the long-term decline in curlew numbers since the 1970s, the bird is now assigned to the UK’s “red list” of endangered species. Similarly, on continental Europe, it is listed as vulnerable to extinction. There are many reasons for this situation, including habitat loss (afforestation, urban development, drainage of wetlands, and shift to arable farming), the consequence of changes in farming practices (increased mowing of fields, destruction of nests by farm equipment, and early cutting of green grass for silage), increases in the number of predators (foxes, badgers, crows), and climate change (loss of water, drying out of breeding sites, ground too hard for curlew bills, and the inundation of coastal habitats). To raise awareness and support conservation efforts, the English-based Curlew Action Group has declared April 21 to be World Curlew Day.
Today, an estimated 25 percent of the Eurasian birds’ global population breeds in the UK, numbering close to 70,000 pairs, but has suffered an approximate 70 percent decline since the late 1960s. During winter, about 150,000 curlews congregate along the UK shorelines, including many birds from overseas, and at the same time British curlews migrate south to other countries. You can often observe large flocks in coastal areas during this period that stop to feed during their migration.
Despite the present gloom over the future of the species, do not assume that earlier times were always kind towards the curlew. The species was often hunted and eaten, and it was not until during World War II that butchers in the UK were banned from selling its rich, dark flesh.
Curlews are included in several old English recipe books, were eaten at royal feasts, and in Cornwall became so common that their meat was stuffed into pies. Evidence of their revival during the mid-20th century is documented in my copy of the 1958 edition of the York Bootham School Bird List. Under “curlew” it reports:
At the end of the 19th century, the curlew seems to have been confided to the moorland parts of Yorkshire as far as breeding was concerned.
Nowadays the picture is quite different. They have bred for several years in locations around York and during the severe winter of 1947, many were seen along the River Ouse.
However, this trend subsequently reversed, and breeding curlews are now largely confined to moorland territories.
North America long-billed curlew
In North America, the Eurasian species is absent except as a very rare vagrant. However, there are three other curlew species native to this continent, with the long-billed curlew the most common. It has an estimated population of 125,000 to 160,000, and its down-curved bill is slightly longer than the Eurasian variety at 8 inches (20 cm). The bird is a foot tall (30 cm), and is the largest shorebird in the United States. Its coloring is mainly mottled brown, with a pale cinnamon belly, and in flight it displays upper and lower wings that are slightly cinnamon. Because of its long bill, it was nicknamed the candlestick bird, and this alias is one of the alleged sources for the name given to Candlestick Point in San Francisco. Apparently, long ago, the long-billed curlew was plentiful in this area.
Territory for long-billed curlew
In size, shape and color, the long-billed curlew is similar to the marbled godwit, but the curlew’s down-curved bill is distinguishable from the upturned bill of this other bird. The curlew’s call is a whistled and high pitched curl-e-e-u-u, whereas the godwit gives off a loud kerreck or god-wit sound. The breeding grounds of the long-billed curlew are from south-west Canada and along the western half of the United States, with its breeding range in California restricted to the state’s north-eastern counties. Winter is spent in the south-western states and south to Guatemala. It is also seen along the Texas and Mexico Gulf coastlines.
Alaskan breeding grounds of bristle-thighed curlew
There is the much rarer bristle-thighed curlew, so named for the inconspicuous bristle feathers at the base of its legs. It nests in a few hilly areas of north-western Alaska and has an estimated global population of 10,000. For winter, it flies non-stop to a range of south Pacific islands, including Hawaii, Fiji and Samoa. The species is vulnerable to extinction, causing its breeding numbers to be closely monitored in Alaska, and steps taken to protect its wintering habitat.
The Eskimo curlews’ breeding grounds were in the far northeastern regions of Canada, and they wintered on the pampas grass of Argentina. However, the last confirmed sighting of this species in Canada was during 1987, and it was last recorded in South America in 1939. Distinctive features include a shorter bill than other curlews, and a white or pale buff throat. It is the smallest American curlew and appears to have become extinct as a result of hunting.
One final caution for birdwatchers is to be aware of the risk of confusing the identification of curlews with their close cousin, the whimbrel. The latter typically breeds in the vast, flat, treeless, frozen Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia, and migrates south along coastlines to winter in the Caribbean Islands and along the north coast of South America, or, for Eurasian birds, to occupy the shorelines of Africa, south Asia and Australasia. Because of its more remote breeding locations, the whimbrel is less threatened than other curlew species, and has a global population of around 1.8 million. Whimbrels generally are greyish-brown above and whitish below, with two distinct races. The Eurasian whimbrel is white-rumped (very noticeable in flight), whereas the North American variety is dark-rumped. The curlew and whimbrel are similar in shape, but the whimbrel is smaller, and although its bill is similarly down-curved, it is not as long as the curlews. They breed only in the extreme northern Scotland in the UK, but are regular passage visitors along most of the British coastline from April to September.
Probably the best ways to identify the whimbrel is through its two dark bands across the head, and by its rippling whistle that is prolonged into a trill.
Like the curlew, it is named after its call. Whimbrels also tend to congregate in flocks during their migration.
There are three other species of curlew worldwide, with only the little curlew not on the endangered species list. It is the smallest curlew, has the shortest bill, breeds in northern Siberia, and spends its winters in Indonesia and Australasia. Its population is about 180,000, and the number is stable.
The slender-billed curlew, classed as critically endangered, has a population of under100, and nests in the peat bogs of Siberia and winters around the Mediterranean. There is also the Far Eastern curlew, similarly endangered, and a declining global population of around 30,000. It breeds in eastern Russia and Mongolia, and winters mainly in coastal Australasia.
Hopefully, by learning about curlews, you will understand why particular species of bird are headed towards extinction, and why conservation actions must be taken. In the UK, the emphasis is on protecting the curlews’ habitat, monitoring its nesting sites, culling predators or fencing them off from breeding areas, rearing chicks in captivity, and increasing public awareness of the plight of the species. The European Commission has adopted similar plans for continental Europe. The North America situation involving the long-billed curlew is less severe, although numbers have declined in the eastern parts of its breeding range, such as across the Great Prairies and Great Basin. Thus the species has been placed on the list of “birds of concern”.
Remember that April 21 is World Curlew Day. The date marks the Feast Day of St. Beuno in Wales (who died 21 April 640). As the story goes, he was a Christian missionary, crossing the Menai Strait to Anglesey to lead a sermon when he dropped his papers in the water. This would have been a disaster were it not for a passing curlew that rescued the book and flew his papers to land to dry and prepare them for his services. As a thank you, St. Beuno prayed to God for the protection of the curlew and that the species would be made invisible and allowed to nest safely among long grass that was free from predators. Hopefully, future recovery of the curlew population will be accomplished in a manner pleasing to St. Beuno.
When I think about the birds I describe in my novel, She Wore a Yellow Dress, it is awful to realize how many other species are under threat, and are on the same list of endangered species. In the UK, I include in my book such threatened species as the cuckoo, nightingale, turtle dove, skylark, and common pochard, and although not globally threatened, the starling, song thrush, and house sparrow are also on this list because of their declining numbers in Britain. Other species in my book with less notable population decreases have been placed on the “amber” watch list, and include such species as the mute swan, osprey, gannet, gadwall, great skua, dipper, kingfisher and tawny owl. In addition to addressing global warming, we ourselves must modify our behaviors to permit diversity among all living things to survive. Hopefully, efforts to conserve birds in the wild will be successful and the present situation will improve over time.