Long-billed Curlew

Numenius americanus

(c) Scott Elowitz
  • SCOLOPACIDAE
  • Snipe, Sandpipers, Phalaropes, and allies
  • Charadriiformes
  • Zarapito pico largo, Zarapito americano, Chorlo pico largo
  • Courlis à long bec
Introduction
With a bill over a third of its total body length, the Long-billed Curlew has a profile to rival Pinocchio's. This spectacular sandpiper strides gracefully across short grass prairies, tidal flats, and lake edges. Of the world's eight curlew species, five are listed as vulnerable to endangered. Among them, the Long-billed Curlew is distinguished by being the largest shorebird in the world.
(c) Glen Tepke
Appearance Description
The face and underside of the subtly colored Long-billed Curlew are light tan with blurred, brownish streaks that are heaviest in the neck, fading into the belly. Its facial pattern is weak, and the upper parts are mottled brown and buff. In flight, its long, broad wings flash a bold, clean cinnamon color. The Long-billed Curlew's heavy body is supported on long, bluish legs, with a moderately long neck, and an extremely long bill, measuring up to 8¾ inches. Orange at the base, the dark bill curves strongly downward for almost half its length. On average, this shorebird grows to 23 inches, and weighs 1.3 pounds, with a wingspan of 35 inches.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
The Long-billed Curlew breeds from northeastern New Mexico northward into southern parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Its breeding range extends northwest into northern California. In North America, wintering populations of Long-billed Curlews concentrate in southern Texas, across the border of western Texas and eastern New Mexico, and in parts of California, especially the Imperial Valley.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
The Long-billed Curlew prefers a variety of expansive, open, flat or rolling areas. Breeding curlews use short-grass prairies, pastures, and meadows, preferably near water. Long-billed Curlews also use extensive pastures and areas invaded by exotic cheatgrass. Wintering birds inhabit tidal mudflats, sparse salt marshes, lake shores, and croplands.
Feeding
Considering the length of this curlew's bill, open and sparsely vegetated habitats are the most suitable. Wading in shallow water or walking across exposed flats, wintering birds probe for crabs, earthworms, marine worms, and shrimp. They also pick items from the surface; pecking is the dominant feeding method on the breeding grounds. In summer, the Long-billed Curlew consumes grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, and caterpillars. This shorebird does not appear to eat any vegetable matter.
Reproduction
Long-billed Curlews are monogamous for the breeding cycle, and may re-form old pairs. Male Long-billed Curlews often return to the same breeding territory and reoccupy it before the females arrive. With graceful flight displays, resonant calls, and ritualized fighting, males establish their territory and attract a mate. The female selects one of several scrapes, usually near an object like a dirt mound or a cow patty. The pair deepens and then lines the scrape with grasses, pebbles, bark, and dry dung.
 
Females usually lay four beige or light green eggs, densely marked with brown or purple. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 28 days, sometimes sitting with their necks resting on the ground. Long-billed Curlew chicks are precocial; within a few hours they leave the nest for denser, taller grasses, and begin to feed themselves within a day. With aggressive displays, direct attacks, and feigned injuries, both parents defend chicks from crows, coyotes, hawks, and people. Females depart within a few weeks. Young curlews fledge in 38 to 45 days.
Migration
In small groups along a broad range, Long-billed Curlews migrate short distances from March through May. Fall migration runs from early July through October. This species may maintain family groups during fall migration. Unlike other shorebirds, Long-billed Curlews do not appear to stage or follow traditional routes.
  • 20,000
  • 20,000
  • moderate population declines and very small population size
Population Status Trends
Since the middle of the 19th Century, the Long-billed Curlew has suffered severe losses. Breeding Bird Surveys have indicated a continued decline into the 1990s, especially in the Great Plains region. With only 20,000 Long-billed Curlews left, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan both designate this species "highly imperiled," due to its small population size, recent population trends, and threats to its breeding and wintering habitats alike. The Long-billed Curlew is designated as a "monitoring species" in Montana, "vulnerable" in Oregon, South Dakota, and Canada, and a "species of special concern" in Colorado.
Conservation Issues
At least a third of the Long-billed Curlew's historic breeding range has been destroyed by expansion of croplands, urbanization, or the redirection of water. Although this shorebird breeds in upland habitats, nearby water is important to its survival. One study found that Long-billed Curlews built nests within 100 yards of standing water 41% of the time in southeastern Colorado. When irrigation, global warming, or domestic consumption lowers water tables, Long-billed Curlews have difficulty finding prey. These curlews also face significant threats on the tidal flats, salt marshes, and damp grasslands where they winter. The San Francisco Bay area has lost 85% of its tidal marshes, where an estimated 50% of California's coastal Long-billed Curlews winter.
 
The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service have detailed optimal management practices for this shorebird. Among their recommendations are grassland preservation, thoughtful timing of controlled burns, rotational grazing, and reduced pesticide use near breeding sites. The Long-billed Curlew survives well in continuously grazed habitats, with a small break for incubation.
What You Can Do
During the long northern winter, look for the conspicuous Long-billed Curlew at one of its warm coastal locations, like the Texas Mid-Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex at the Brazoria or San Bernard Refuge.
 
Join a local conservation group to encourage protection of critical grassland habitat, and limited access to these grasslands during migration.
 
Conservation easements can be an effective tool for managing land to benefit the Long-billed Curlew, especially in combination with controlled burns and managed grazing.
 
Conduct and report a migratory shorebird survey according to International Shorebird Survey protocol.
 
For more actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
The Fish and Wildlife Management Leaflet #7 (January 2000) offers specific advice and lists programs, reimbursements, and contacts for these management practices.
 
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Dechant, J. A., M. L. Sondreal, D. H. Johnson, L. D. Igl, C. M. Goldade, P. A. Rabie, and B. R. Euliss. 2003. Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Long-billed Curlew. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
 
Dugger, B. D., and K. M. Dugger. 2002. Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus). In The Birds of North America, No. 628 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 

Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
"Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus)." Fish and Wildlife Management Leaflet #7 (January 2000) 8 pages.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
                                                                    
U. S. Shorebird Conservation Plan. 2004. High Priority Shorebirds – 2004. Unpublished Report, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MBSP 4107, Arlington, VA 22203 (5 pages).
Conservation Status References
Dechant, J. A., M. L. Sondreal, D. H. Johnson, L. D. Igl, C. M. Goldade, P. A. Rabie, and B. R. Euliss. 2003. Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Long-billed Curlew. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
 
Dugger, B. D., and K. M. Dugger. 2002. Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus). In The Birds of North America, No. 628 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
"Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus)." Fish and Wildlife Management Leaflet #7 (January 2000) 8 pages.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan. 2004. High Priority Shorebirds – 2004. Unpublished Report, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MBSP 4107, Arlington, VA 22203 (5 pages).