Bird Families

Curlew birds


The most famous example of the barbaric extermination of mass bird species, which resulted in the complete extinction of a taxon, is the story of the wandering pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). But the bird in this photograph, taken by Donald Bleitz on Galveston Island in Texas (USA) in 1962, is undeservedly forgotten by many. This is the Eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis).

Moreover, the fates of these two birds are inextricably linked with each other. They were not similar in appearance, were not close genetically, and the levels of their influence on American ecosystems were different, but the history and the main factors of their fatal decline were the same - excessive hunting and destruction of habitats. Nevertheless, the Eskimo curlew, unlike the wandering pigeon, is still not included in the list of extinct taxa by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is poorly known on the other side of the ocean, shaded here already by the third, probably extinct local "star" of the world avifauna - thin-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris).

The Eskimo Curlew was rather average for waders, but rather small for its kind. In length it reached 29–34 cm, in a wingspan of about 70 cm, weight was 270–450 g. A dark brown stripe across the eye and a longitudinal stripe of the same color on the head with beige veins stood out in the color of the head. The plumage of the upper part of the body was brown with reddish-beige spots, the underside was significantly lighter, buffy-cream, with longitudinal dark strokes on the chest and Y-shaped markings on the sides. Females were on average slightly larger than males and had a slightly longer beak. The juveniles outwardly resembled adults, but the lower part of their body was more ocher, and the feathers of the upper body had better pronounced light edges and spots.

The famous work of John James Audubon from the equally famous book The Birds of America. Image from

From the now living American medium curlew (N. hudsonicus) the Eskimo curlew was distinguished by its smaller size, not so impressive beak and monotonously dark primary feathers. Evolutionarily, the Eskimo curlew is considered to be close to the Siberian baby curlew (N. minutus), but was slightly larger than him and had longer wings, shorter legs and warmer tones of plumage color. The vocalization of the Eskimo curlew is poorly known. In breeding grounds, birds made a “continuous soft whistle”, while the voice of curlews away from the nesting grounds was described as “often repetitive, soft, although distinct whistle” in flight, repeated by several birds at the same time, or as a fluttering crackle.

The well-established nesting area of ​​the Eskimo Curlew occupied a relatively narrow strip of bare Arctic tundra north of the forest boundary on the southern coast of Amundsen Bay, in the far northwest of mainland Canada. Most likely, birds nested in the adjacent areas of Alaska. In the life of Americans, this species played an essential role as a hunting resource, respectively, only twice a year - during periods of migration, when flocks of many thousands of waders could be found on the prairies and coastal meadows over a vast territory within the country.

It is curious that the seasonal routes of passage of curlews were different. After the breeding season, in late July and early October, birds moved east through the northern tundra of Canada, then left Newfoundland and Labrador directly across the ocean and reached land in the Lesser Antilles.after which they moved along the eastern coast of South America to places of permanent wintering - to the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. In late February and early March, curlews set out on a more straightforward return journey: the birds flew along the Andes to Central America and the Gulf Coast, returning to their nesting sites through the central regions of the United States and Canada.

Nesting (Red color), wintering places (blue) and the flight paths of the Eskimo curlew. Question marks the supposed places of nesting, migration and wintering are marked. Image © J. Dando from T. Melling, 2010. The Eskimo Curlew in Britain

The diet of the Eskimo Curlew was mixed. At the nesting sites, he ate mainly animal food - ants, freshwater insects and their larvae. In the coastal provinces of Canada, birds often visited areas covered with cloudberries and crowberries on the tundra slopes before flying south. During migrations, the curlews' menu consisted mainly of crickets and fillies, as well as other insects, spiders, molluscs, small crabs and worms. When migrating to nesting sites, the food of the birds, apparently, mainly consisted of locust egg-pods. An important place among them was occupied by the locusts of the Rocky Mountains (Melanoplus spretus) - once a massive pest of crops, which became extinct by the beginning of the 20th century, presumably as a result of plowing up the territories where it reproduced.

Rocky Mountain locust specimens in the Cornell University Insect Collection. Photo © Matt Hayes from

The nesting behavior of the Eskimo curlew has been poorly studied. Oviposition probably took place in June, birds were observed in nesting sites from late May to early August. The nests were simple depressions in the soil, 8–10 cm in diameter, lined with several leaves or blades of grass. Clutch with 3-4 eggs of pale olive, olive green or pale yellow color with a very variable pattern of brownish olive, dark brown or purplish gray spots. The eggs are 47.5–54.5 mm long, 33–39.5 mm wide, and weigh about 33 g. The chicks hatch peak from late June to mid-July.

The final segment of the natural history of the Eskimo curlew echoes the sunset of a wandering pigeon. At the beginning of the 19th century, this sandpiper was widely known as a numerous and not too shy bird, capable of forming flocks of many thousands during flights. From here, by the way, one of the common names of the bird arose, prairie pigeon - "prairie dove". The decline in the number of wandering pigeons by the 1850s prompted hunters and sports hunters to switch to other massive game species. During each season of migration, hunters began to hunt hundreds of thousands of curlews, which led to a sharp decline in the number of the species by the years 1870-1890. At the same time, active plowing of the prairies and the development of the pampas in wintering areas - critical habitats for migratory birds - became aggravating and, probably, decisive factors.

Eskimo curlew as seen by the artist. Image © Martina Nacházelová (Nachiii) from

By the first decade of the 20th century, populations of the Eskimo curlew collapsed to such low values ​​that regular sightings of the species in places where it previously concentrated ceased. So, wintering birds have ceased to be observed in South America since 1939. In 1918, a law came into force in the United States and Canada that significantly restricted the shooting of migratory birds, but this species could not recover after the introduction of this measure. The last indisputable evidence of its existence was the shooting of several individuals in Texas in March – April 1962, as well as a collector's copy from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Pennsylvania (USA), obtained in Barbados on September 4, 1963. All subsequent sightings of Eskimo curlews have the status of unconfirmed, although data on observations of similar birds in Texas in 1981 and in Nova Scotia in 2006 are often called plausible. To date, the Eskimo curlew still does not have the official status of an extinct species, but the chances of its re-discovery are vanishingly small.

The carcass of the last reliably known specimen of the Eskimo Curlew, taken from the island of Barbados on September 4, 1963. Photo © P.A. Buckley from P. A. Buckley et al., 2009. The Birds of Barbados

Migrating Eskimo curlews, in the years of their relative abundance, were occasionally encountered far beyond their permanent habitats, in particular in Europe and the Falkland Islands. At the end of the 19th century, two specimens of the Eskimo curlew were hunted by Leonid Frantsevich Grinevetsky in the vicinity of Anadyr, which makes it possible to include the species as a vagrant in the bird fauna of modern Russia. Both specimens are currently kept in the Zoological Museum of Tomsk State University.

Description of curlews

The size of the body and length of the beak, body weight and wingspan, as well as the color of the plumage and legs in representatives of the Snipe family and the Charadriiformes order differ depending on the species.


Great curlew is a bird, 50-60 cm in size and weighing 600-1000 g, with a wingspan of 80-100 cm... This is the largest and most common representative of the family in Europe. A characteristic feature of the curlew is a long and curved beak. The color of the curlew is modest, and the color of the plumage varies from beige-brown tones to gray-brown shades with different stripes or blotches.

Far Eastern curlews are the largest waders of the fauna in Russia. The wingspan reaches a meter. Representatives of the species are distinguished by long legs, a dark brown back and reddish edging on the feathers. The belly area is lighter, with ocher bloom and longitudinal dark streaks. Little Curlew is a 28-34 cm long bird with a wingspan of 57-63 cm and a weight of 150-175 g. The plumage is predominantly brown, but the belly area is white. The bill is short and noticeably curved. There are light and dark stripes on the head, which are located on the crown and above the eyebrows.

The body length of the average curlew is no more than 40-46 cm, with a wingspan of 78-80 cm.The average weight of an adult male is 268-550 g, and that of a female is within 315-600 g. The main difference from the large curlew is the presence of black -brown crown of light longitudinal stripe and edging with light eyebrows. In addition, representatives of this species have a shorter beak. The general color of the plumage is gray, with specks all over the body.

The Tahitian curlew is a bird 40-44 cm long with a wingspan of 80-90 cm and a body weight of 300-350 to 500-550 g. The base of the long beak is pink, and its upper part has a dark coloration. The bird is characterized by gray legs, a light beige underside of the body and a light tail with transverse dark stripes. The upper part of the plumage is dark brown with a gray tint and sand-colored specks. The underside of the wings is reddish brown and the upper side is blue-gray.

It is interesting! The Eskimo or dwarf curlew is a bird with a body length within 30 cm, which is slightly larger than the smallest curlew known now, but noticeably less than any other species of such birds.

The body length of the thin-billed curlew is about 40 cm. Representatives of this species have long legs and a sharp beak, which is characteristically curved downward. The plumage is distinguished by an earthy gray color with the presence of very dense stripes and specks. There are light longitudinal stripes in the head area. The color of males and females does not have any visible differences.

Character and lifestyle

Curlews are adherents of a social lifestyle, therefore, quite often you can observe numerous flocks of representatives of the genus. At their nesting sites, adults gather singly, in pairs, or as part of an already established flock. On the territory of central Russia, the usual nesting period for curlews begins, as a rule, in April, and in the steppe regions - in March. The breeding season in the northern regions begins in May.

Most often, immediately after arrival, the birds begin the process of mating.... At this time, the male rises upward and emits a very sonorous and loud whistle, after which it begins to glide easily over the ground. Such characteristic movements are repeated by the bird many times. The very process of nesting curlews takes place in close proximity to the water.

Despite the fact that all types of curlews existing today are peaceful birds and leading a social lifestyle, such representatives of birds very zealously guard the borders of their settlement. According to scientists, the so-called nesting conservatism is very characteristic for adult curlews, so every year they return to their chosen territories.

How many curlews live

The average life span of large curlews in natural conditions ranges from ten to twenty years, and the maximum figure (according to ringing data) is three decades.

Sexual dimorphism

Females are usually slightly larger than males, and have a longer and curved beak. In addition to this sign of sexual dimorphism, there are no external differences between the sexes.

Types of curlews

Currently, there are only seven families of such birds, and only five of them are now found in Russia.

  • Great curlew (Numénius arquata), including the subspecies Numénius arquata arquata and Numenius arquata orientalis,
  • Long-billed curlew (Numenius amеriсanus),
  • Far Eastern curlew (Numenius madagassariensis),
  • Medium curlew (Numenius phaeorus),
  • Little Curlew (Numenius minutus),
  • Tahitian curlew (Numеnius tаhitiеnsis),
  • Small-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris).

Eskimo or pygmy curlew (Numenius borealis) most likely died out in the last century.

Habitat, habitats

The curlew nests in swampy areas and in humid areas, and in winter it lives near the coasts or inland, giving preference to fields and flooded meadows.

The main distribution area is represented by Northern and Central Europe, as well as the territory of the British Isles. In winter, Great Curlews fly off to the coasts of southern and western Europe.

The Far Eastern curlew nests in the Amur Region and Kamchatka, as well as in the Primorsky Territory. In the summer, representatives of the species are found in Vilyuya, on the Koryak Highlands and in the Nizhnyaya Tunguska area, as well as on the island part of Bering, in the northeastern part of China and on the Korean Peninsula. Little Curlew nests in forest glades and river valleys in the northern part of Siberia. Representatives of the species belong to the category of migratory birds, therefore they go for the winter to the Malay Archipelago or to Western Europe.

Medium curlews live in swamps and swampy lake shores, in wooded plantations near water. Representatives of the species nest in Western Europe and northwestern North America, as well as in Russia, from the Kola Peninsula to Kamchatka and Anadyr. This migratory bird hibernates from the southeastern part of China and the Mediterranean Sea to New Zealand, southern Africa, Tasmania and South America.

Tahitian curlews nest in the Alaskan tundra near the Yukon estuary and on the Seward Peninsula. Representatives of the species are migratory birds that migrate to tropical oceanic islands through Japan with the onset of autumn. Such birds are very often found in Hawaii, Fiji or in French Polynesia.

The habitat of the thin-billed curlew is wet meadows, swampy zones in the steppe part of Asia, and during flights the birds settle on the sea coasts. For wintering, all representatives of this species go to the southern part of Europe, to the territory of Asia Minor or to North Africa.

Curlew diet

Far Eastern curlews catch bivalves and gastropods, feed on gammarus, oligochaetes, and sometimes small crabs and fish. During the ripening period of berries, birds make regular raids on coastal berry fields and feed on blueberries or crowberries.

Small-billed curlews eat small animals, including insects and their larvae, worms and snails, and on the shore such birds catch small crustaceans and molluscs.

It is interesting! The Tahitian curlew has an unusual dietary spectrum that includes not only insects, spiders, fruits and flowers, but also lizards, carrion, eggs and small mammals. Birds break open the egg shell by dropping it on the ground or stones.

The baby curlew uses invertebrates as food, which are hunted by representatives of this species in soft mud, and the average curlew in the summer period feeds only on the berries of the black crowberry. In winter, medium-sized curlews live on the mainland, where they mainly eat insects and larvae, snails or worms. When on the coast, such birds prey on crabs, shrimps, amphipods and sea mollusks.

Reproduction and offspring

The Far Eastern curlew reaches sexual maturity at the age of two... During the breeding season, it settles in small colonies, placing its nest in a depression among vegetation or on a hummock. One clutch usually consists of four eggs, and both parents are engaged in incubation. At nesting sites, such birds are found from the beginning of May, and chicks are born in the last decade of June.

The clutch of the medium curlew is represented by three or four eggs of a pale fawn, brownish or dark olive color with dark specks that differ in size, shape, density and intensity. A female and a male take part in incubation, which replace each other for four weeks. Chicks appear at the end of May, and they become independent already in July.

The nest of the thin-billed curlew is a small hole on the ground, slightly covered with grassy vegetation. Each clutch contains, as a rule, four olive-greenish eggs with not too large brownish specks.

Natural enemies

Nests, erected by some species in open areas, are often attacked by stray dogs, and in some cases, the clutch is killed by the spring flood. Ravens and foxes, large land and air predators are also a potential threat to offspring. The total population of all curlews is decreasing at a very fast pace, which is due to the drainage of swamps, excess water in the lowlands, the development of vast territories for plowing or agricultural activities, as well as the active destruction of the habitat habitual for birds.

Population and status of the species

Since the middle of the last century, the total number of representatives of some species of curlews has been steadily declining. On the territory of most regions, curlews are listed in the Red Book, and the image of a thin-billed curlew can be seen on the emblem belonging to the Russian Bird Conservation Union.

History of the species

The population of Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris declined very quickly. By 1994, it was declared completely extinct in certain areas. A couple of years later, adults of Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris were found, which meant the population was recovering.

The main habitat for birds remains the Urals region. Several lonely individuals have been found in other areas, but this fact cannot be attributed to evidence of population recovery. The species remains in a difficult position with a changing status.

External characteristics

The steppe medium curlew belongs to massive birds. The body length ranges from 40 to 46 cm. The wingspan is large up to 80 cm. The weight of males and females is different. The male weighs from 268 g to 550 g. The female weighs from 315 to 600 g.

The color is variegated, but uniform. The body has a light brown main plumage. There are characteristic ripples on top of it. The largest number of ripples is on the back, in the area of ​​the wings.

The tail and wings are sharp, long. They are made up of the thickest and toughest feathers. The plumage along the rest of the body is dense, shortened.The shortest feathers are near the eyes.

The key is sharp, elongated and curved at the end. It is dark in the male and female. There is a cap-shaped spot on the top of the head. The female and the male have it. The tail is distinguished by the darkest color of the whole body. He is slightly lowered down.

Paws are long, light in color. Sometimes the bird is confused with a heron, but the species have no similarities other than very long legs. Sometimes the feet are blue. They are gray and blue, sometimes white. Color does not affect the species of an adult.

Brief description of the species

The best habitat for the curlew is swamp and marshland. Shores of small lakes and small rivers are suitable. In the forest, the species equips small nests, but chooses a place near the water.

Western Europe is suitable for nesting birds because of the good weather conditions for them. In Russia, the population chooses the forest-tundra.

The species is migratory. The migration takes a long time with several stops. Temporary habitats are settled near a reservoir or in a forest. For wintering, the bird chooses China, New Zealand. Africa is suitable for wintering large populations.

Food, hunting

In spring and autumn, food is limited, average. The most plentiful and large diet falls during the summer breeding season.

The main food is berries. Birds are whimsical in the choice of berries, they use only certain varieties.

In winter, when there are no berries, if the flock lives on the mainland, it feeds on insects. Larvae, beetles and snails become the mainstay of the diet. Near the coast, adults feed on crabs or crayfish.


As a nest in a fossa species close to water. For the nest, choose a dry place without lower reaches and hills. There should be a small bush or bunch nearby to perform a protective function.

Hatching begins in May. There are 3-4 eggs in a clutch. They are olive or brown. The shape and size of eggs varies.

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0:03 - current in flight. The background is another medium curlew, small breeder, golden plover. North of the Arkhangelsk Region, May. Authors of the recording - Veprintsev B.N., Leonovich V.V.,

0:39 - in-flight current. The background is a fawn. North of the Khanty-Mansiysk Auth. County, June. The author of the recording is V.K. Ryabitsev, 0:51 - calls. Tomsk region, May. The author of the recording is S. I. Gashkov,

0: 57-1: 16 - anxiety. Background - morodunka, willow warbler. North of the Arkhangelsk Region, May. The authors of the recording are Veprintsev B.N., Leonovich V.V.