Eskimo Curlew: A Sad Anniversary and a Warning to Heed

“At sunset, September 4, 1963, a lone Eskimo curlew, flying at the head of a flock of shore birds, was shot down by a hunter on the coast of Barbados….

“On finding that the victim was not the familiar whimbrel, the hunters gave the large, buff-gray bird with a long, curving bill to Capt. Maurice B. Hutt…who…placed the bird in his deepfreeze.” It was discovered some 17 months later by James Bond (M.W. Bond 1965:314, 316).
(From the US Geological Survey/Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center website)

*  *  *  *

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the last confirmed live sighting of an Eskimo Curlew. The last Eskimo Curlew on record, a single bird, was seen and fatally shot in Barbados on September 4, 1963. The last confirmed live sighting in Canada is even older, in 1932, in Labrador. According to a BSC newsletter from last month, “It seems increasingly likely that the Eskimo Curlew will be the next bird species – and the first since the demise of the Passenger Pigeon in 1914 – to be formally declared extinct in Canada.”

Captain Maurice Hutt, mentioned above, would give the last Eskimo Curlew two years later to ornithologist James Bond, curator of birds at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (where the specimen, now mounted, remains). Dr. Bond could not know how true his words would be when was quoted in a 1965 newspaper article, “One hundred years from now, this may be the last known specimen of the Eskimo curlew.” In only 50 years, his words are true.

From Randy Boswell’s August 2nd article for Canada.com:

 Under Canada’s endangered species protocols, the elapse of 50 years since the last confirmed sighting of any animal is a key criterion for formally declaring it extinct. And while it could take years for that to happen, when Canadian officials eventually do take the step it will be the first time since the passenger pigeon vanished almost a century ago — in 1914 — that any bird in Canada will be officially classified as lost forever. …

The fate of the Eskimo curlew is also seen as a worrisome omen for other Canadian bird species, particularly at a time when ongoing habitat destruction and climate change are transforming northern nesting sites and important migration stopover spots.

The article mentions the book Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, published in 1955, which I learned about last year when I wrote a 4H speech on the Eskimo Curlew and other birds that are virtually extinct. Here’s some of what I learned and wrote, from my speech and extra research (which I didn’t have room for in my speech — by the way, my mother actually wrote a blog post the other year using most of my speech research, so if this seems familiar to some readers, that’s why.)

The Eskimo curlew, a medium-sized shorebird in the sandpiper family, is said to have been among the birds that guided Christopher Columbus to the new world. But the curlew is so rare now from overhunting 100 years ago that it’s very probably extinct. If there are any still in existence, scientists think they number fewer than 50 adult birds, when once the population was in the millions and they flew in flocks so thick that they formed dark clouds one kilometer wide and long.

Eskimo Curlew (center), illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Eskimo Curlew (center), illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

If it sounds much like the story of the Passenger Pigeon, there are definite parallels. Nineteenth century American market hunters who needed a replacement for the pigeon, which they had hunted into extinction, looked around and proceeded to do the same sad thing to the Eskimo Curlew, which they called “doughbirds” — the birds, heavy from gorging themselves on berries, fruit, and insects in their breeding grounds in the Northwest Territories and Alaska, would put on a thick layer of fat in preparation for their migration. The curlews, again like the Passenger Pigeons, were so tight together as a flock that a single shotgun blast could easily kill about 20 birds. The survivors had the unfortunate habit of circling back for injured or dead flockmates, giving the hunters yet another chance to kill more. Hunters first starting shooting the birds on their spring migration. Then, looking for even more, they headed for the curlew breeding grounds, where men would blind the birds with lanterns and then club them.

The Eskimo Curlew’s migration was one of the longest and most complex in the animal kingdom. The winter journey involved a large clockwise circle, beginning at the subarctic Canadian tundra, through the western hemisphere, east through Labrador, down through the Atlantic, across the southern Caribbean, and finally to the Argentinian Pampas and Chile.

Another blow to the Eskimo Curlew, just as it should have been rebounding from overhunting, was the loss of one its important prey species, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, or locust. If you’ve read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek, you might remember the plague of locusts in the chapter “The Glittering Cloud”:

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers.  The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground an dthe house with the noise of a hailstorm.

… Grasshoppers covered the ground, there was not one bare bit to step on. Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet. …

Then Laura heard another sound, one big sound made of tiny nips and snips and gnawings.

“The wheat!” Pa shouted. He dashed out the back door and ran toward the wheat-field.

The locusts were the farmers’ scourge on the Great Plains in the 1870s, and yet the insects’ destruction was as accidental as it was complete, as well as completely devastating for the Eskimo Curlew population. In fact, entomologist Dr. Jeffrey Lockwood has called it “the only complete elimination of an agricultural pest species”. What happened, Dr. Lockwood discovered, is that

Between outbreaks, the locust hid out in the river valleys of Wyoming and Montana — the same river valleys that settlers had discovered were best suited for farming.

By converting these valleys into farms — diverting streams for irrigation, allowing cattle and sheep to graze in riparian areas, and eliminating beavers and their troublesome dams — the pioneers unknowingly wiped out locust sanctuaries. They destroyed the locust’s equivalent of [the Monarch butterfly’s] Mexican forest wintering grounds. They doomed the species.

For the rest of the fascinating story, you can read Dr. Lockwood’s article here.

The Eskimo Curlew could not recover from both overhunting and the loss of such an important food source.

In the summer of 2011, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service announced the initiation of a five-year status review and request for informationseeking any information about the Eskimo Curlew, to review whether the bird should continue to be classified as endangered or formally designated as extinct. The last sighting confirmed by the Fish & Wildlife Service was in Nebraska in 1987.

An excerpt from Chapter One of Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth:

The Arctic day was long, and despite the tundra gales which whistled endlessly across the unobstructed land the day was hot and humid. The curlew alternately probed the mudflats for food and patrolled his territory, and all the time he watched the land’s flat horizons with eyes that never relaxed. Near mid-day a rough-legged hawk appeared far to the north, methodically circling back and forth across the river and diving earthward now and then on a lemming that incautiously showed itself among the reindeer moss. The curlew eyed the hawk apprehensively as the big hunter’s circling brought it slowly upriver towards the curlew’s territory. Finally the roughleg crossed the territory boundary unmarked on the ground but sharply defined in the curlew’s brain. The curlew took off in rapid pursuit, his long wings stroking the air deeply and his larynx shrieking a sharp piping alarm as he closed in on the intruder with a body weight ten times his own. For a few seconds the hawk ignored the threatened attack, then turned back northward without an attempt at battle. It could have killed the curlew with one grasp of its talons, but it was a killer only when it needed food, and it gave ground willingly before a bird so maddened with the fire of the mating time.

The sun dipped low, barely passing from view, and the curlew’s first Arctic night dropped like a grey mist around him. The tundra cooled quickly, and as it cooled the gale that had howled all day suddenly died. Dusk, but not darkness, followed.

The curlew was drawn by an instinctive urge he felt but didn’t understand to the dry ridge of cobblestone with the thick mat of reindeer moss at its base where the nest would be. In his fifth summer now, he had never seen a nest or even a female of his kind except the nest and mother he had briefly known in his own nestling stage, yet the know-how of courtship and nesting was there, unlearned, like a carry-over from another life he had lived. And he dozed now on one leg, bill tucked under the feathers of his back, beside the gravel bar which awaited the nest that the bird’s instinct said there had to be.

Tomorrow or the next day the female would come, for the brief annual cycle of life in the Arctic left time for no delays.

Another edition of the book, in the 1990s, came about because “Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin found this slim 1955 novel on a shelf in the house of friends, and, struck with the ‘plain, succinct evocation and beauty’ of Fred Bodsworth’s writing, suggested its reissue to a publisher.” That edition has a foreword by Merwin and an afterword by Murray Gell-Man, with J.J. Audubon’s painting of Eskimo Curlews on the cover. The most recent edition I could find, in the New Canadian Library series from McClelland & Stewart in 2010, has an afterward by celebrated Canadian writer and birder Graeme Gibson (who is married to another celebrated Canadian writer and birder, Margaret Atwood). Together they were named in 2006 as Joint Honourary Presidents of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club.

LastCurlews

For younger children, Last of the Curlews was made into a one-hour animated movie in 1972 to teach them about conservation. It was the very first ABC Afterschool Special, winning an Emmy for children’s broadcasting. The animation by Hanna-Barbera is wonderful, very different from the usual Hanna-Barbera “Flinstones” style of animation. The good news is that the movie is available, in several parts, on YouTubePart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5. My family and I watched it online and it’s very moving, and incredibly sad — not at all happy or hopeful. Just because it’s a cartoon doesn’t mean the story gets sugarcoated. Extinction is extinction.

We also found on YouTube a little video blurb made by Canadian eco-photographer Edward Burtynsky on Last of the Curlews for the Toronto Public Library.

When I was researching my speech, I looked online to learn more about the author, Fred Bodsworth. Charles Frederick (Fred) Bodsworth was an internationally renowned naturalist, journalist, and novelist. He was born in Port Burwell, Ontario, in 1918, and spent some time working on tugboats and in tobacco fields. He then became a reporter for the St. Thomas (ON) Times-Journal at the age of 22 and later was a writer and editor at The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine. Mr. Bodsworth left Maclean’s in 1955 to focus on magazine and nature writing, and novels. He was president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists from 1964 to 1967. In 2002, he received the prestigious Writer’s Trust Matt Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award. Mr. Bodsworth died last year, on September 15, 2012, at the age of 93. Friends and family remembered his life with a hike in his memory last fall at the Bracebridge Sewage Lagoons, where Mr. Bodsworth used to spend hours birding. From an obituary in The Globe & Mail (“Storyteller was a citizen of nature”),

A lifelong learner, Bodsworth was an amateur scientist, but his keen observations in the field and his extensive knowledge of bird life earned him the respect of peers and scientific organizations alike.

Bodsworth was a long-serving member of the Brodie Club, a select group of naturalists and scientists who would meet in Toronto to pool information and thus enlarge on what was currently known about natural history. He was also a member of the Toronto Ornithological Club and the Ontario Field Ornithologists. During the 1960s, he was a sought-after leader of worldwide ornithology tours and a contributor to several important anthologies. From 1964 to 1967, he was president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature).

I will close on this anniversary with some of Mr. Bodsworth’s words:

“Out of the blending of human and animal stories comes the theme that I hope is inherent in all my books: that man is an inescapable part of all nature, that its welfare is his welfare, that to survive, he cannot continue acting and regarding himself as a spectator looking on from somewhere outside.”

*  *  *

(Note from Charlotte’s mother: Charlotte wrote and scheduled this post for publication before her departure. However, I took the liberty of adding the mention of and link to the BSC newsletter, which came out once she was already in Ontario. UPDATED TO ADD: I also added the incorrect illustration originally, and just changed it to an actual Eskimo Curlew. You just can’t get good help these days…)

4 thoughts on “Eskimo Curlew: A Sad Anniversary and a Warning to Heed

  1. i identified a single Eskimo Curlew at Fort Simpson, NWT (Spring 1971) as part of the first McKenzie Valley Pipeline Study.

  2. Reblogged this on Nature Manchester and commented:
    I was talking with a colleague about ‘The Last of the Curlews’, an animation that it turns out we both saw in the mid 1970s when we were about 8-9 years old. The film had a tremendous effect on both of us- it would be interesting to hear from other people with the same experience. I saw comments on YouTube (you used to be able to watch it there), and it turns out there are a group of people, of which I’m one, who must have seen it at the same time and the same age. This was powerful stuff, and the experience has always stayed with me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s