Be Your Own Birder

Celebrating Curlews!

Curlews are amazing birds – so amazing, that they have their own holidays to celebrate their amazing-ness! But what do you know about curlews and why they’re worth celebrating?

Long-Billed Curlew - Photo by Melissa McMasters
Long-Billed Curlew – Photo by Melissa McMasters

What Is a Curlew?

A curlew is a type of sandpiper, part of the bird family Scolopacidae. Other birds in the family include godwits, turnstones, knots, dowitchers, snipes, phalaropes, and other sandpipers. There are nine unique species of curlews, though one of them – the Eskimo curlew – is already presumed extinct. Of the remaining eight curlew species, another may be extinct as well, two are endangered and three others are vulnerable or threatened. One curlew species – the whimbrel – is the only one to not have the word “curlew” in its common name. Whimbrels are the most widespread curlew, and are found on every continent except Antarctica.

All curlews share several unique traits. Like many shorebirds, they have mottled brown plumage that helps them blend in with sandy shores, mudflats, and similar habitats. They are larger birds, with heavy bodies, small heads, and longer legs. The most distinctive feature of the curlews, however, is their very long, thin, and very obviously downward curved bills. Their bills are very sensitive, and allow them to probe into mud, sand, soft dirt, and shallow water looking for worms and insects. They will also eat crabs and other prey.

Seeing Curlews

At least one curlew species is found on every continent except Antarctica, and these shorebirds have wide ranges that make them easy for birders to spot. Watch for curlews in wet habitats with damp or muddy soils that are easy to probe, such as mudflats, marshes, flooded fields, sandbars, shorelines, beaches, moorlands, and islets. They generally pace very deliberately as they forage, watching the ground carefully for insects and worms as well as slight movements that may indicate prey just below the surface. They may also appear to nibble at the dirt or mud as they poke about for prey. Their long legs also allow them to wade in slightly deeper water than many other shorebirds, and they are often in mixed flocks with other shorebirds and waders.

Whimbrel - Photo by Silver Leapers
Whimbrel – Photo by Silver Leapers

Holidays for Curlews

There are two days of the year designated for celebrating curlews. March 16 is Curlew Day, a day first celebrated in Oregon as the time when long-billed curlews traditionally returned to the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge for courtship and nesting. Many other refuges and nature preserves celebrate similar days for their own curlew populations, rejoicing in all that is distinct about these stunning shorebirds.

World Curlew Day is April 21, and celebrates all curlew species around the world. A younger holiday first organized in 2018, this special day aims to foster grassroots recognition of curlews and raise awareness of the plight these amazing birds face.

You can celebrate curlews every day of the year, just by enjoying these birds. Visit a refuge to see curlews, take photos of curlews, read about curlews, learn to draw a curlew, work curlews into office conversation, and just be happy curlews are in the world for us to appreciate!

Bristle-Thighed Curlew - Photo by USFWS
Bristle-Thighed Curlew – Photo by USFWS

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