Long-billed Curlew


The Long-billed Curlew

This very unique-looking bird normally is found only in the winter along coastal Florida and in southern Florida. The scientific name of the long-billed curlew, Numenius Americanus, is derived from Latin word numen meaning to nod or nod the head, a feeding characteristic of the bird, with americanus likely referring to the location in which the bird is found, Canada and North and South America. This curlew is the largest North American shorebird, a member of the sandpiper family, and with the distinctive downward curving beak that is as long as one-third of the bird’s total body length, hard to miss as it forages in wetlands, tidal estuaries, mudflats, and even occasionally along the beaches. To assist in identification, and usually shown only in flight, the long-billed curlew has a rusty or cinnamon coloration on both the underside of wings and across the trailing edge of feathers on upper side of wing. In the winter, the birds often use the beak to probe mud and sand seeking marine crustaceans and invertebrates such as fiddler crabs, crayfish, and shrimp, The birds move inland to shortgrass prairie fields, often near freshwater wetlands, in southern Canada and the central US for breeding in summer, where the diet changes to mostly insects, earthworms, grasshoppers, beetles, even spiders! That very long bill is more dexterous at picking up small items than one might think! And, speaking of a long bill, the tip of the curlew beak has tactile and chemo-sensitive nerve receptors and is flexible, allowing the bird to probe and locate prey sight unseen below the surface. The long legs allow the birds to wade in various watery habitats without wetting or soiling the body feathers with mud, and the long toes provide stability for all the walking and running, even in soft mud. The long-billed curlew also is capable of swimming.

Like other members of this family and ducks and geese, when young long-billed curlews hatch they are covered with down, have their eyes open, and are up and walking around within a short time. While they may not be completely self-sufficient this young, the chicks do start feeding themselves, but still need the parents to protect them from predators and teach them foraging tricks. At the age of 40 to 45 days old, the young birds can fly and become independent of the adult parents.

Interesting long-billed curlew tidbits:

  • Both the male and female of the pair incubate the eggs.
  • When the young are only two to three weeks old, the female abandons them, going off on her own, and leaves the male to continue providing protection for the young birds for an additional two weeks.
  • Long-billed curlews have long wings that come to a point at the ends that allow them to achieve remarkable speed when migrating—individuals in this family have been clocked at speeds of 25 miles an hour or more.
  • The long-billed curlew population along the East Coast has declined significantly over the past 150 years, first due to over-hunting, now principally due to habitat loss, particularly eastern breeding habitat. The birds are listed as a species of concern by both Canada and US Fish and Wildlife Service.