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Species Database

Numenius americanus - Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew image

Geographic range:

Central and western North America

Key features:

Large mottled buff/brown shorebird, extremely long down-curved bill 5 ˝ (139.7 mm) to 8.5 inches (216 mm), dull bluish gray long legs

Similar species:

Limosa fedoa -- Marbled Godwit
Numenius phaeopus -- Whimbrel

Habitat(s):

bay (sandy shore), estuary, exposed sandy beaches, protected sandy beaches
 

Primary common name:

Long-billed Curlew

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:

176593
 

Geographic Range

Range Description:

In the summer, the Long-billed Curlew breeds in open country, grassland and sagebrush prairies, and fields from southeastern British Columbia, east to central Nebraska, and south to northeastern California and New Mexico. When inland it eats earthworms, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, crickets, crayfish, snails, and small amphibians and crustaceans. Southeastern British Columbia east to Nebraska, south to California, New Mexico, coastal Texas and Mexico; some along the Atlantic Coast. In the winter, it visits the upper Pacific Coast, central California, coastal Texas, Mexico, and the southeastern Atlantic Coast, seeking mudflats, marshes, beaches, tidal flats, large coastal estuaries, wetlands, upland herbaceous areas, and croplands where the Curlew probes for crayfishes, shrimp, crabs, other small crustaceans, and mollusks; and picks berries, and seeds.

Habitats

bay (sandy shore), estuary, exposed sandy beaches, protected sandy beaches

Habitat notes:

Here in the MBNMS area the Long-billed Curlew is a fairly common migrant and winter resident on Elkhorn Slough marshes and tidal mudflats, where a small population of 40 to 60 birds winter from July through March. Occasionally they are seen wintering on interior grasslands of Monterey County, and during migration in October and November, flocks of up to a thousand stop on these grasslands, but they are rare elsewhere.

Abundance

Relative abundance:

Uncommon to fairly common

Species Description

General description:

The Long-billed Curlew is North America’s largest shorebird and is a member of the sandpiper family, Scolopacidae. Although it is considered a wading shorebird, it is primarily ground-dwelling, using short-growth grassland prairies for survival. The genus, Numenius, is Greek and refers to the crescent-shaped bill. The Long-billed Curlew is similar in size, shape, and color to the Marbled Godwit, except for its bill, its most distinctive feature. The bill is extremely long, thin, down-curved, and sickle-shaped, looking almost as long as the body. The color of the bill is dark brown and fades to a flesh tone at the base. The female’s bill, up to 8.5 inches (216 mm), is longer than the male’s and is shaped differently, being flatter on top with a more pronounced curve at the tip. The male’s bill is gently curved throughout its length. The juvenile’s bill is shorter with less downward curving than the adult’s during its first few months, but may equal the male’s length near the end of its first year. This long, down curved bill is especially well adapted for capturing shrimp and crabs living in deep burrows on its wintering grounds, and also for finding earthworms in pastures on its breeding grounds. The Long-billed Curlew has a mottled, buff brown body, a long neck and small head, plain buff breast, brownish rump and barred tail, and broad wings that are cinnamon colored underneath, thus very striking in flight, which consists of gooselike wingbeats. Its crown has some darker brown stripping on the head, but not nearly as pronounced as the head stripes of the Whimbrel. The deceptive, camouflage-like coloration helps it to blend in with its surroundings and avoid predators. The legs are long and a dull bluish gray. Their front toes are webbed and they are able to swim if necessary. The eyes are dark brown with a white eye ring and a dusky eyeline, from the base of the bill to behind the eye. It has a loud, fairly musical, two-toned whistle, with the second note higher than the first, described by some as a whistled “cur-lee” or a rapid “kli-li-li-li” or “whit-whit, whit-whit-whit-whit.\"

Distinctive features:

North America’s largest shorebird, the Long-billed Curlew has a mottled buff/brown body, dull bluish gray long legs, 5 ˝ (139.7 mm) to 7.8 inch (200 mm) down-curved bill, nearly as long as the body, brown eyes with white eye ring and an eyeline extending from the base of the bill to behind the eye. Often in mixed flocks with Marbled Godwits.

Size:

Length: 20-26 in (50-56 cm) Wingspan: 24-35 in (62-89 cm) Weight: 17-34 oz (490-950 g)

Natural History

General natural history:

The Long-billed Curlew breeds on dry grasslands and shrub savannahs, grain fields, and pastures. They are semi-colonial, migrating in flocks, flying in formation, and roosting and feeding in flocks. On the breeding grounds they are generally solitary nesters but, in favorable habitats, may be loosely colonial with nests spread relatively far apart, at least 75 feet apart. During migration and winter they are most commonly found on coastal mudflats and marshes, and less commonly in fields and grasslands. They are able to fly as fast as 50 miles (80 km) per hour. They often gather in small flocks to forage, walking quickly and gracefully with their long bills extended forward, probing for food or picking it from the surface. In winter they make periodic short flights from intertidal mudflats to high tide roosts, in coordination with the tides. On summer grassland and prairie breeding grounds, besides earthworms and other invertebrates, they eat berries and seeds. Coastal birds eat crabs and other aquatic prey. They probably feed at night in estuarine habitats. They are one of the earliest breeding shorebirds. Mating season is from mid-April through September. Both parents care for the chicks, but the female will leave after two to three weeks, leaving the male to care for the chicks until they fledge at 32-45 days old. Sexual maturity is reached at three to four years and their life span is up to ten years. In the Pacific region, a significant number winter in the interior valleys of California, while the rest winter along the coast, with the largest concentrations occurring at San Francisco Bay. They often roost in mixed flocks with Marbled Godwits.

Predator(s):

Hawks, badgers, coyotes, weasels, snakes

Prey:

Insects (adults and larvae), beetles, crickets, earthworms, grasshoppers, spiders, ghost shrimp (Callianassa californiensis), mud shrimp (Upogebia pugettensis), mud crabs (Hemigrapsus oregonensis), gem clams (Gemma gemma), mollusks, other small crustaceans, fishes, small amphibians, other nesting birds, and berries and seeds.

Feeding behavior

Omnivore

Feeding behavior notes:

The Long-billed Curlew uses its long bill to probe for marine invertebrates deep in sand or soft mud, at times wading in belly-deep water; or to grab (ground glean) prey from mud surfaces. They often gather in small flocks to forage, walking quickly and gracefully with their long bills extended forward, probing for food or picking it from the surface.

April - April

Migration:

The Long-billed Curlew is one of the earliest breeding shorebirds and most leave their wintering grounds in mid-April. The migration is usually accomplished in 2 days or less. They are fast, flying in formation, and able to go up to 50 (80 km) miles per hour. They head for the open country, grassland and sagebrush prairies, and fields of southeastern British Columbia, east to central Nebraska, and south to northeastern California and New Mexico.

April - September

Reproduction:

On the breeding grounds, courtship between monogamous pairs includes an elaborate dance, nest scraping, and fast, looping display flights. A nest is scraped by the pair in a damp grassy hollow, on a slope, or sometimes near a cow manure patty. It is lined with grass, weeds, and cow patty chips. Usually four 2.6 inch (65 mm) olive/buff to olive, green, or buffy white, marked with brown spots, eggs are laid. The eggs take about a month to hatch and both parents incubate them, the female mostly during the day and the male sitting at night. When predators are in the area, the incubating parent will crouch down low on its nest. The deceptive, camouflage-like coloration helps it to blend in with its surroundings. Adult curlews actively defend their eggs and young by pretending to be injured and leading the predator away. They will also use vocalization to drive away a predator and will sometimes dive at predators. If a nest is only partially destroyed, the parents will abandon any remaining eggs. Predators destroy from 10 to 16 percent of Long-billed Curlews nests. The chicks are precocial. Shortly after birth their parents lead them to feeding grounds where they hunt for invertebrates such as grasshoppers. Both parents care for the chicks, but the female leaves after two to three weeks, leaving the male to care for the chicks until they fledge at 32-45 days old.

Feeding:

They probe with their long down-curved bill for earthworms and spiders; and pick (called ground gleaning) beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, small amphibians, insect larvae, and seeds.

June - March

Migration:

Fall migrants begin arriving on wintering grounds as early as late June. They are joined by the juveniles by mid-July. Their migration to seashores, lakes, rivers, mudflats and salt marshes, is short and often accomplished in less than 2 days, usually migrating in flocks of less than 50, flying in formation and reaching speeds of 50 miles (80 km) per hour. Some of them stage in the Central and Imperial Valleys of California, before continuing on to final winter destinations in the southern U.S. and south to Guatemala.

Feeding:

The upper Pacific Coast, central California, coastal Texas, Mexico, and the southeastern Atlantic Coast provide mudflats, marshes, beaches, tidal flats, and wetlands where the Curlew probes for shrimp, crabs, small fish, mollusks, and other small crustaceans; and ground glean insects; and pick berries and seeds.

Listing Status:

The Long-billed Curlew was once common along the Great Plains and in the eastern United States. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s they were hunted as game and were a menu item in many restaurants. By the time they were finally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1902 much of their crucial breeding habitat had been destroyed by agriculture. Populations in the east have never recovered, while in the west the population is considered “stable” or “slightly declining”. Beside loss of habitat from agricultural practices, livestock grazing, and other habitat disturbances, pesticides (organochlorines) may also contribute to the problem. In 2006 Morrison et al. estimated the total population of Long-billed Curlews to be 123,500 individuals. Under the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan they are listed as a species of High Concern and “highly imperiled” mainly due to population declines over parts of their range, their low population size, and threats to their non-breeding and breeding grounds. Their range once extended further east than it does today, as grasslands were converted to agriculture. However, the IUCN, in 2008, downlisted it to “Least Concerned” status. In Canada it is considered “vulnerable”. It is on the Audubon Society’s Blue List of decreasing bird populations.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Ehrlich, P., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birders Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York. 785 p.
Morrison, G. and B. J. McCaffery. 2006. Population estimates of North American shorebirds. Canadian Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Research Centre, Carleton University
NOAA. 1994. Beached marine birds and mammals of the North American West Coast: a revised guide to their identification. NOAA Sanctuaries and Reserves Division, U.S. Department of Commerce
Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds 2nd edition. Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society, Carmel, CA. 536 p.
Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Bird. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 545 p.
WWW
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search
Accessed 05/17/2009 for Albatross
Accessed 01/15/2009 for Clark's Grebe
Accessed 01/20/2009 for Great Egret
Accessed 02/03/2009 for American White Pelican
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant
Accessed 02/12/2009 for Black-necked Stilt
Accessed 02/28/2009 for Marbled Godwit
Accessed 03/15/2009 for Whimbrel
Accessed 04/11/2009 for Long-billed Curlew
Accessed 04/13/2009 for Heermann’s Gull
Accessed 09/10/2009 for Eared Grebe
Accessed 11/11/2009 for American Avocet
Accessed 01/26/2010 for Pigeon Guillemot
Accessed 12/15/2009 for Black-crowned Night Heron
Accessed 07/07/2009 for Pied-billed Grebe
Accessed 04/04/2010 for Osprey
Accessed 08/30/2010 for Ruddy Turnstone
Accessed 10/10/2010 for Pacific Loon
Accessed 10/15/2010 for Sooty Shearwater
Accessed 10/30/2010 for Surf Scoter
Accessed 12/04/2010 for Bufflehead
Accessed 02/01/2011 for American Coot
Accessed 02/20/2011 for Western Sandpiper
Accessed 03/04/2011 for Least Sandpiper.
Accessed for California Condor

WWW
Nature Works. 2009.
http://www.nhptv.org/Natureworks/greategret.htm
Accessed 01/20/2009 for Great Egret Ardea alba
Accessed 01/30/09 for Pelagic Cormorant
Accessed 02/03/09 for American White Pelican
Accessed 02/28/09 for Marbled Godwit
Accessed 04/11/09 for Long-billed Curlew
Accessed 11/11/09 for American Avocet
Accessed 08/30/2010 for Ruddy Turnstone

WWW
Texas Parks and Wildlife, 2008
http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/stilt
Accessed 02/12/09 for Black-necked Stilt
Accessed 04/11/09 for Long-billed Curlew
Accessed 11/11/09 for American Avocet
Accessed 12/15/2009 for Black-crowned Night Heron

WWW
United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Habitat Management Institute. 2000.
Long-billed Curlew by Mueller, J.
http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps18512/www.ms.nrcs.usda.gov/whmi/pdf/curlew.pdf
WWW
US Geological Survey. 2006.
Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. Effects of Management Practices on Grassland Birds.
http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/literatr/grasbird/lbcu/lbcu.htm
WWW
US Geological Survey. 2008.
Alaska Science Center. Life History of Long-billed Curlew
http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/shorbirds/lbcu.html