A lot of people know that my favorite bird is the killdeer, but, I’m also obsessed with Eskimo curlews. It all started when I saw (or saw again), the ABC Afterschool Special and read the book by Fred Bodsworth called “Last of the Curlews”. It was a sad story about a lone male curlew in search of a mate, and then finds one, only to lose her at the very end of what was a promising travel back to the nesting area. The whole story of the Eskimo curlew was a very sad one that may have ended in extinction. But, I deeply hope that is not the case.
The Eskimo curlew was the smallest curlew in the Americas and was once the most numerous shorebirds in the region. It looked a lot like the whimbrel which is still pretty plentiful in most areas today. It had a remarkable migration going from the top of the Earth in the high arctic, almost all the way down to the tip of South America, though not quite as far as the red knot or arctic tern does. Like many birds in the mid to late 1800s in the United States, it was hunted mercilessly and went from multiple millions of birds to practically none in about twenty years. The bird had an endearing characteristic of returning to comfort its hurt mates and colleagues when they were shot or injured. Hunters took this as stupidity and this trait of the curlews made it easier to mow down huge flocks of these birds for the market.
Even when this bird became extremely rare, it continued to be shot by collectors wanting to be the ones to have one of the last Eskimo curlews in its existence. With the passage of the Migratory Bird Act in 1918, most of the shooting stopped, but it was too late. The bird was considered extinct in the 1940s, but was re-found in the 1950s. A pair of birds was frequently seen in Texas each year from the late 1950s to early 1960s when the two were photographed. One bird was shot in Barbados in 1963. This ends the last official records of the species. But, other sightings were confirmed up to the 1980s. There have even been fairly credible sightings up until the early to mid-2000s.
I maintain a page on Squidoo about Eskimo curlew sightings. One of the problems that people seem to be having is distinguishing the curlew from the whimbrel. Most people alive now have never seen an Eskimo curlew even in a museum. Skins of the bird are not common and only a handful museums display mounted specimens and mostly in the states where the specimen was obtained. Most skins are kept locked up and one has to get special permission to view and study them up close. Juvenile whimbrels can look very much like Eskimo curlews, especially far out on a mud flat. Many people also confuse Eskimo curlews with long-billed curlews. Even back in the 1960s, with photographs and a specimen, even sighting was highly scrutinized. Without physical proof, no sighting of this bird will ever be accepted now. Since the bird was, more or less, officially declared extinct this year after 50 years of lack of physical proof, I haven’t heard of a single sighting where I usually hear of at least two or three a year.