Eskimo Curlew

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Eskimo Curlew

Numenius borealis

ListedMarch 11, 1967
FamilyScolopacidae (Sandpiper)
DescriptionLong-legged wading bird; dark brown with a pale throat and long, down-curved bill.
HabitatOpen tundra, tidal marshes.
FoodInsects, snails, berries.
ReproductionClutch of three or four eggs.
ThreatsLow numbers.


Also known as the doughbird or prairie pigeon, the Eskimo curlew is the smallest of the American curlews, measuring about 14 in (36 cm) in total length. It is a long-legged wading bird with a plump body that is dark brown above and lighter below. The throat is white or pale buff. The upper breast is streaked with dark brown, and the underwings are reddish brown, with darker bars. It has a long, black, downcurved bill; dark brown eyes; and grayish blue legs. Both sexes appear alike. The Eskimo curlew is considered to be the most endangered long-distance migrant in the world.


The birds breed and nest when they return from their wintering grounds in late May or June. Nests are usually a hollow in the ground lined with leaves or straw and are difficult to locate. The camouflaged eggs are brownish green to blue. Clutch size is three to four eggs. Curlews forage in wetlands on insects, snails, and berries.


Eskimo curlews nest in wetlands north of the tree line in open tundra, and in tidal marshes near the Arctic Ocean. Their winter habitat is on the pampas of Argentina.


Historically, the Eskimo curlew bred in the northern Mackenzie District of Canada and along the Alaskan coast. In late summer, curlews migrate to Argentina, mostly flying over open ocean from Labrador to South America. Some were known to fly south over the Great Plains to the Texas coast. On their northward migration, they could be seen in Texas and Louisiana in early March, then along the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte River valleys. The Eskimo curlew was considered possibly extinct until a flurry of sightings in the central and southern United States and in Canada. In May 1981, 23 Eskimo curlews were observed on Atkinson Island, Texas. In April 1987, one bird was sighted in a meadow along the Platte River in Nebraska, and in May at least two more were reported from the Texas coast. In late May 1987, Canadian Wildlife Service personnel discovered an Eskimo curlew nesting in northern Canada. It is believed that the breeding population is 100-150 birds.


The Eskimo curlew was already rare in the early part of the twentieth century and has been seen only occasionally since that time. Hunting during migration may have been partly responsible for the bird's decline, but disease or predation are probably more significant factors. None of these factors can be verified, because this rare species has not been sufficiently studied. Nor have recovery strategies been devised, since the bird both nests and winters far from normal human encroachment.

Conservation and Recovery

In response to recent sightings, shorebird specialists from the United States and Canada gathered at a meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union to discuss the plight of the curlew. These specialists recommended immediate protection and management of known stopover areas along the Eskimo curlew's migration routes.

Through Conservation International, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) funded two studies of the Eskimo curlew in its Central and South American migration and wintering sites. The objective of the first project was to locate Eskimo curlews by intensive searches of historically occupied wintering habitats. Forty ornithologists searched Argentina and Uruguay during the winter of 1992-93. They found concentrations of associated grassland shorebirds, but no Eskimo curlews.

The second project involved a search of Spanish and Portuguese literature in South America, museum skins, and other informational sources. It appears that the birds historically spent the middle of the non-breeding season (November and December) in the southern pampas or in Patagonia, returning to the northern pampas of Argentina in January-February. Extensive areas of grassland habitat remain in Argentina today, and shorebirds associated with the curlew are still common.

The FWS has formed a recovery team to plan the conservation effort for the Eskimo curlew. The team includes representation from the Canadian Wildlife Service and the International Committee for Bird Preservation.


U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Regional Office, Division of Endangered Species
P.O. Box 1306
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87103-1306
Telephone: (505) 248-6911
Fax: (505) 248-6915

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Regional Office, Division of Endangered Species
P.O. Box 25486
Denver Federal Center
Denver, Colorado 80225

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Regional Office, Division of Endangered Species
1011 E. Tudor Rd., Room 135
Anchorage, Alaska 99503
Telephone: (907) 786-3909
Fax: (907) 786-3844


Blankinship, D. R., and K. A. King. 1984. "Probable Sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas." American Birds 38: 1066-1067.

Gollop, J. Bernard. 1988. "The Eskimo curlew." In W.J. Chandler, ed. Audubon Wildlife Report. Academic Press, San Diego.

Greenway, James C. 1958. Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. American Committee for International Wild Life Protection, New York.