By Dan Grannan
The long-billed curlew is an epic bird. Not only is it the largest shorebird in North America, it also displays one the greatest aerial shows of any avian flier. During breeding season, the curlew flies in fast loops as part of a courtship dance. This ostentatious display attracts both feathered mates and human bird-watchers alike. Named for its long, slender bill and “cur-loo” call, curlews are also called “candlestick birds” and are the namesake for San Francisco’s Candlestick Point.
Adult curlews have an elongated bill that curves downwards, a long neck and a small head, while the chicks have a much smaller and less curved bill. The females have a much longer bill than the males. Curlews’ underbelly and neck are cinnamon-colored and their crown and back are speckled with various shades of brown.
Range and Habitat
The long-billed curlews breeding range is massive. It spans from southern Canada to northern California, and also includes Utah, northern New Mexico and Texas. The curlew loves the sun and winters in California, Texas, Louisiana, and South Carolina as well as Florida, Mexico, and Central America. This range used to be much larger with massive numbers being found along the Great Plains and eastern prairies. Increased agriculture and livestock grazing has shrunk the range of the curlew.
In the summertime, curlews sample grasshoppers, beetles and crickets from the grasslands. Throw in a small amphibian from time to time and you have the ideal summer diet. During the winter months when the bird is sunning on the beach, small crustaceans, mollusks, berries and seeds are its delicacies of choice.
Mama curlew lays four eggs in a grass-lined nest and incubates them for about one month. Papa curlew assists by taking turns warming and guarding the little eggs. Mama and Papa curlew use their multi-colored feather coats to camouflage and protect the nest from predators. Skilled actors, the adult birds are known to feign injury to lure potential egg-snatchers away from the nest. They also can take a more direct approach if needed, using loud vocalization and dive bombing to deter predators. Once hatched, the chicks are almost fully independent. The adults teach them to hunt grasshoppers and watch over them for up to 45 days, and then they are on their own. The average curlew life span is eight to ten years.
Under the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan curlews are currently slated as “critically imperiled.” Habitat destruction is a major concern for the curlew. As marshlands are shrinking and prairie lands are developed or converted to farmland, the curlew is losing its potential habitat breeding grounds. With a current population size of only 123,500, monitoring and protection efforts are critical to ensure this population does not suffer the same fate of many other extinct species. You can help protect this lovely bird next month by joining The Watershed Project on International Coastal Cleanup Day to ensure that curlew habitat is free of marine debris.