Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Letting Go of the Curlew

Eskimo Curlews, as painted by John James Audubon in the early 1800s.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:

Fifty years ago today, on Sept. 4, 1963, an Eskimo Curlew was shot on the island of Barbados.

Many migratory shorebirds were shot every fall on islands in the Lesser Antilles. It was almost a fluke that this small curlew was recognized as something unusual and that the specimen was given, many months later, to an ornithologist from Philadelphia. And in another fluke, as a little kid and beginning birder, I heard about this only two years after the curlew was shot. I had joined the National Audubon Society at the age of nine, since it was the only bird group that I'd heard of, and one of my very first issues of Audubon Magazine carried the sad news about the curlew. 

At that point the Eskimo Curlew was already a bird of legend. It had been abundant at one time, migrating north through the Great Plains in spring, nesting in the Canadian Arctic, migrating out over the Atlantic in fall in a great arc that took it to southern South America for the winter. But its abundance was no shield against the market hunters who shot shorebirds by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1800s. By early in the 20th century, the curlew had been pushed to the edge of extinction, and years at a time would pass with no sightings at all. 

Miraculously, one or two migrating individuals had been found on the upper Texas coast in spring in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and had even been photographed. But after the lone bird was shot on Barbados, the spring sightings in Texas ceased. 

The year that I turned nine and joined the Audubon Society, my family moved from Indiana to Kansas. I was now positioned directly on the spring route that the Eskimo Curlew once had followed. Great flocks of the curlews, along with American Golden-Plovers, Upland Sandpipers, and other "shorebirds" of open fields, traditionally had touched down in the area where I was now living as an avid, intense kid birder.  

So of course I looked for them. Throughout my teenage years, the Eskimo Curlew was on my mind. After all, I reasoned, it would be too bizarre a coincidence if that gunner on Barbados had connected with the very last curlew. If there had been one or two in Texas in 1962, if there had been one in Barbados in 1963, there had to be a few still out there. So every spring I would search in what seemed like the right habitats. I saw plenty of Upland Sandpipers, lesser numbers of American Golden-Plovers and Buff-breasted Sandpipers and Baird's Sandpipers, all species that would have used the same stopover sites as the mythical curlew. And I kept believing that I would find the curlew itself: After all, I kept telling myself as the years went by, we know the species was still alive five years ago... seven years ago... ten years ago... fifteen years ago...

Hope dies hard, and some people continue to believe that some Eskimo Curlews might be making the long journey from the Arctic to Argentina and back, every year, undetected. Indeed, there continue to be a few claimed sightings. But none has been documented since 1963. And in the meantime we have an army of skilled birders scouring every shorebird habitat, telescopes and cameras in hand. Let a Black-tailed Godwit from Europe touch down in Florida, let a Red-necked Stint from Siberia land in California, and it is immediately documented in a thousand photos. If any Eskimo Curlews survived, wouldn't someone have taken a photo of one during the last fifty years? 

The year that I turned nine and joined the Audubon Society, I also discovered an amazing book in the local library. Last of the Curlews had been published in the mid-1950s, before the spate of spring sightings in Texas. A small gem of a book by Canadian author Fred Bodsworth, it told the fictionalized story of an Eskimo Curlew, perhaps the last of its kind, migrating alone toward the Arctic. The book was beautifully written, and it had a powerful impact on me as an impressionable boy who loved birds. I learned early on to hate the idea of extinction, to mourn the loss of any species.  
Fred Bodsworth, author of Last of the Curlews
Mr. Bodsworth was a kind and generous man, and a fine naturalist as well as a gifted writer. He passed away a year ago, in September 2012. More than a decade before, however, I'd had the chance to meet him, and I feel fortunate that I was able to tell him how much his Last of the Curlews had meant to me. But as the calendar clicks past the fifty-year mark since the last of the certain, definite, confirmed curlews died, I may finally have to let go of the idea that I will ever see that bird in life.


  1. A beautiful story Kenn! I really hope that you do get to see one in your lifetime...

  2. Great story Kenn. I have read about these birds and I also hold out that perhaps there is a secret colony of them somewhere unknown, but as you say about birders with Ebird, camera equipment etc etc....shouldn't one pop up? Extinction is a very scary word to me. I've only now begun searching for birds.....the Eskimo Curlew, the Auk, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Hawaiian Crow....etc etc....but I want to keep unicorn hope alive. You never know. PS. I just read Kingbird Highway and really enjoyed your stories. Very inspiring. Thank you for your contributions.

  3. I remember you meeting Fred Bodsworth when you spoke at the Toronto Ornithological Club in April 2001. I am glad that you got to tell Fred how much his book had meant to you. He heard that a lot and it was always very gratifying to him. Right up until last year Fred kept reading anything he could find on the Eskimo Curlew - it was a life-long fascination for him. Fred and I were friends for 35 years and I wrote an In Memoriam tribute to him in Ontario Birds last year after his passing. Fred mentioned to me many times how much he was impressed with your contributions to both North American birding and ornithology Kenn. He was a fan of your work too. Letting go of the dream of the Eskimo Curlew will be for our generation the same melancholy task that your friend Roger Tory Peterson and his contemporaries had to grapple with for the Passenger Pigeon and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker - a sad and forever postmortem on what might have been.

    Glenn Coady, Toronto, Ontario

  4. An example of Hope Springs Eternal .... hang on to that dream!

  5. I just spent 35 minutes looking for my copy of that book- it's either buried in a box in the attic or I lent it to a good friend. Either way, thank you for reminding me how important it is to look at every bird that comes our way, because you never know. (Okay, I don't look at every Canada goose)

  6. That is so incredibly cool you got to meet Fred Bodsworth. I was also very touched by Last of the Curlews when I read it a few years ago. I think books like that are very important, so that incredible birds the Eskimo curlew that have disappeared from this world can at least remain in our memories.

  7. Wishing won't make it so--this bird is gone. I remember a line from the video "Flight of the Whooping Crane" I saw years ago. It could be paraphrased as "Individuals may be born and die, but when the last of a species is gone, an entire heaven and earth must pass before such a one can be again". Thankfully, we still have the cranes.

    1. The original source of the quote that you're remembering is in the writings of the naturalist William Beebe. He wrote: "The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again." As it happens, the first place I saw that quote was on the opening page of Fred Bodsworth's book "Last of the Curlews."

  8. Thanks, Kenn. That's been rattling around in my head for years. I really didn't want to respond as anonymous, but am not very tech savvy. I grew up in southwest florida in the 50's and have seen so many species decline/disappear. "Breathes no more". It's truly heartbreaking. I really enjoyed Kingbird Highway (remember when people could hitchhike!). Thank you for many happy hours enjoying nature with you!

    Patch Davis

  9. Great article, Kenn. But I'm not giving up - I'm already working on my responses to the critics when I rediscover an Eskimo Curlew. Pics to follow...