Victor Emanuel will never forget the day he saw his first Eskimo Curlew. It was around 60 years ago, in Galveston, Texas, when the foot-long, brown-speckled bird poked its down-curved bill through the grass—a rare gem nearly invisible among a field of other mottled shorebirds. At first, Emanuel and several others believed it was a runt Whimbrel. But after checking all possible field marks and consulting guides, they confirmed that what they saw was the rare Eskimo Curlew. They were among the last people to see the species alive.
“There’s a chapter in my memoir in which I call it the bird of my life,” Emanuel says. “For a birder who had seen this bird in field guides, which said it was possibly extinct, it was like seeing a dinosaur. It had a huge effect on me.”
At one point, the Eskimo Curlew may have been one of the most common shorebirds in North America, with a population numbering in the many millions. Flocks once migrated from wintering grounds in South America, through the Great Plains, to breeding territories in Alaska and Canada—and back south off the Atlantic Coast.
For most people today, though, the species is merely a legend, fueled by old stories and the highly regarded 1954 book Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth. Photographer Don Bleitz took the last known photo of the shorebird in Galveston in 1962, and the last confirmed sighting was in 1963, when a lone bird was shot in Barbados. In 1983, a reported sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas stirred up much excitement, but it was not accepted by the state bird records committee.
“It seems quite unbelievable to me that so many birds would show up on a single occasion, and not be seen ever again,” says Jon McCracken, director of national programs at Bird Studies Canada. “It’s like verifying that there are UFOs out there without good solid physical evidence.”
Though most cite the Barbados record as the last true sighting of the Eskimo Curlew, reports are still occurring—but they’re mostly wishful thinking. “Every season starting in June or July, I get a call with someone reporting an Eskimo Curlew,” says Bob Gill, a shorebird biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center in Anchorage who co-authored a detailed account of the species in The Birds of North America. “Invariably they are juvenile Whimbrels.”
What happened to this once-widespread species, you ask? They were hunted in large numbers through the 1800s; hunting migratory birds, except for those species approved by the government, largely ceased in 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Yet hunting is not the sole cause of decline, Gill says.
"Was it a contributing factor? Absolutely. Was it the only factor? No way,” he says. “As this bird was being hunted, the prairies were being plowed under and a principal food source, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, was going extinct.” These grasshoppers once had population booms in the billions; in 1875, they formed the largest recorded locust swarm: 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, blanketing Plattsmouth, Nebraska for five days. As grasslands were converted to cornfields, the locusts vanished—and grassland birds, like the curlew, did, too.
“Hunting is an easy thing to blame,” Gill continues. “I just hope people can be more objective and look at the big picture.”
That’s particularly important given the threats to the seven other curlew species. This genus of wading migratory shorebirds, distinguishable from others by their down-curved bill and mottled plumage, faces threats in regions across the globe. The Eurasian Curlew, for example, has seen its European breeding population decline by at least one-third in 30 years due to loss of its grassland habitat, and significant declines have also been recorded in central Asian populations. The Bristle-thighed Curlew, with 7,000 individuals, is currently classed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with drops in numbers largely attributed to predation by introduced predators on its wintering grounds in tropical Oceania; considering that more than 50 percent of adults are flightless during autumn molt, they are particularly easy targets.
Then there’s the Far Eastern Curlew, with a population of 32,000 birds in 2006, according to Wetlands International estimates. Habitat loss on the Yellow Sea staging grounds is considered the primary threat to the species and, with the rate of intertidal habitat loss averaging over 1 percent annually, this trend is expected to continue. While the Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, and Little Curlew are not currently a cause for concern, due to their relatively stable populations and wide range, ongoing climate change and habitat degradation could threaten them in the future.
Finally, there’s the Slender-billed Curlew, which hasn’t been spotted since 1995. Similarly to the Eskimo Curlew, historical hunting and habitat loss are believed to be key to their disappearance.
The Eskimo Curlew has not been declared extinct—yet. It is currently considered "critically endangered (possibly extinct)" by the IUCN. The latest report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada again declared the bird endangered in 2009. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a five-year status review of the bird, which upon completion continued to list it as endangered.
Despite there being no confirmed sightings since 1963 and no evident breeding in more than 100 years, it's difficult to definitively say whether the Eskimo Curlew is extinct.
“It’s a case of trying to prove a negative; absence of evidence isn’t proof of absence. If you can’t prove an absence, is it extinct or not?” says McCracken, who authored Canada’s 2009 report. “I personally believe that it probably, almost certainly, is extinct, and I think that’s the general consensus.”
Canada plans to reassess the Eskimo Curlew's status in 2020, with no confirmed date yet for the U.S. review.
Regardless, circumstances remain dire for other curlews and birds that breed or migrate through landscapes that have been transformed. And based on the lack of optimism Gill hears at shorebird meetings, he's not sure how much can be done to reverse the damage. For decades, scientists have sounded the alarm about the wildlife impacts of land fragmentation and the conversion of prairies and forests to farmland. At this point, he says, it might be too late. The changes people have made are vast; there's no converting all of that farmland back to grassland.
Still, Gill maintains some hope that people might be convinced even quirky birds like curlews are worth the effort. And the story of the Eskimo Curlew could help.
“If we declare this bird extinct, let’s use it to our advantage and prevent others from becoming extinct," he says. "I think anything we can do to raise public awareness will help [to protect other species]. We need to get people to get in touch with their concerns they may not have even known that they had.”