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Eskimo Curlew

Eskimo Curlew: Three Strikes in the Wink of an Eye

Until the 1870s, immense flocks of Eskimo Curlews migrating in fall through the Canadian Maritime provinces and New England fattened up on blueberries and fruits of other heathland shrubs before heading south over the Atlantic Ocean to South America. Similarly sized flocks en route north in the spring fed upon grasshoppers and other insects in the Great Plains.

Despite its vast numbers, the Eskimo Curlew population was devastated over just a 20-year period, and was rarely seen after 1890. Now it is almost certainly extinct. Such a swift disappearance can be explained by a lethal combination of three simultaneous events.

  • After Passenger Pigeons disappeared, the Eskimo Curlew became the target of choice for market hunters in search of new foods to exploit.
  • During its migration northward in April and May, the Eskimo Curlew depended almost exclusively on the abundant insect foods of native tallgrass and mixed grass prairies. In the late 1800s, these critical habitat patches were virtually eliminated by wholesale conversion of prairies to agricultural fields and by widespread suppression of wildfire.
  • Extinction of the Eskimo Curlew's primary spring food item, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, North American sport and market hunters followed the vast migrating flocks during spring flights in the Great Plains and fall flights in Labrador and New England. Often thousands of birds were killed at a single location within a few days. This uncontrolled shooting -- combined with the loss of native prairies, the source of the bird's springtime food -- caused the species to disappear. Each spring, birders in coastal Texas still hope for a sighting to confirm that the Eskimo Curlew is not completely extinct, but the prospect is bleak.

Before its demise in the late 19th century, the Eskimo Curlew nested in the High Arctic (red areas on map) and wintered in the southern extremes of South America (purple areas on map). Although its complete migration routes are not known, the bird apparently took an elliptical route as shown on the map. The red arrow indicates the likely northbound leg; the purple arrow shows the probable southbound route. Question marks denote regions where the likely route is unknown.