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Eskimo Curlew

Eskimo Curlew
(by Donald Bleitz, courtesy WFVZ)

It’s surprising how little we know about the basic biology of the Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), considering the species was once so numerous. At this point, the outlook for getting the missing information does not look promising.

The Eskimo Curlew was once known to breed in a small portion of treeless tundra in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Each spring, from March through May, migrating curlews probably traveled north through tall grass and eastern mixed grass prairies (mostly west of Mississippi River).

These birds were reported as abundant to common spring migrants in central and eastern Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, and eastern South Dakota.

In southern Louisiana, western Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, and western Minnesota, they were reported as common.

Southward migrations took the curlews across the western Atlantic Ocean to South America, and then further south to the Pampas and likely to Patagonia where they spent the winter.

The Eskimo Curlew is a small shorebird with a relatively short, slender and slightly decurved (downward curving) bill.

In North America, the Eskimo Curlew is most often confused with the whimbrel, although the body of the Eskimo Curlew is half to two-thirds the size of the Whimbrel.

The curlew’s underparts go from cinnamon to a buff color. Its crown is sooty black streaked with pale buff, making it look like an indistinct crown-stripe.  Its legs are often reported as dusky, dull, slate, bluish, dark gray-blue, or dark gray.

Historically, during the spring migration northward, huge numbers of curlews reached the tall grass and mixed grass prairies of the Great Plains (including Nebraska) by March and April.  During these migrations, curlews liked to hang out in of the parts of the prairies burned from fires caused by lightning or indigenous peoples.  They also favored disturbed areas along river and lake banks where bison herds had been romping and roaming previously.

The historic Eastern Rainwater Basin landscape provided resources and habitat needed by these species during their migration. Eskimo Curlews apparently liked to feed on grasshopper larvae.  In Nebraska, in 1915, Myron H. Swenk noted that, “In the latter 1870’s these birds would congregate on pieces of land which had not been plowed and where the grasshopper eggs were laid, reach down into the soil with their long bills, and drag out the egg capsules, which they would then devour with their contents of eggs or young 'hoppers until the land had been cleared of the pests."

The Eskimo Curlew was once reported to be an abundant-to-common spring migrant in Nebraska. In eastern Nebraska, near present-day Omaha, one observer reported the birds were “present in force for a week or ten days and by the time the wild plum blossoms had fallen, all the birds had left.”



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