Letting Go of the Curlew
|Eskimo Curlews, as painted by John James Audubon in the early 1800s.|
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|