When I plug my pen drive into the car radio, often the first thing I hear is the haunting “cour-lee” of a Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris. This flight call is doubly haunting: It’s the only known recording of the species; and it’s a species I will never have the chance to hear in real life. The last accepted record of the species was in Hungary in 2001, and it is increasingly considered to be globally extinct.
Unfortunately the Slender-billed Curlew is not alone in slipping away before our eyes. Of the eight species of curlew Numenius in the world, five are considered globally at risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red List. And within the Americas, the four regularly occurring species are all considered of conservation concern. Eskimo Curlew N. borealis is listed as Endangered in both Canada and the USA (though it is almost certainly extinct), while the US Shorebird Conservation Plan considers Bristle-thighed Curlew N. tahitiensis to be of “Greatest Concern”, and Whimbrel N. phaeopus and Long-billed Curlew N. americanus as “High Concern”. (To read more about our recent work with the Whimbrel, click here.)
To raise awareness of the plight of curlews and to encourage activities to help them, April 21 has been designated as World Curlew Day. It is a grass-roots initiative, supported by major environmental organisations, and seeks to celebrate curlews as iconic birds of wild, wet, evocative places – estuaries, mountain slopes, moorland, meadowland and coast. They have inspired poets, artists, musicians and writers for generations. And historically they’ve provided an important source of protein, and to this day continue to do so for some Arctic indigenous communities. Unfortunately we’ll never know what has been the ecological impact of the loss of the once abundant Eskimo Curlew, and to what extent the ecosystems it depended on –and which depended on it– have unravelled.