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Nature Watch: Demise of docile Eskimo curlew is an example of mankind at its worst

If you were asked to identify one of this continent’s extinct birds, the name that almost certainly would occur to you is the passenger pigeon, the species whose numbers declined from an estimated 3 billion when Europeans first arrived in North America to a final individual named Martha that died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

A few of you might suggest others: the Carolina parakeet, last seen in 1913; the heath hen, 1932; the Labrador duck, 1870; and the great auk, 1844. You might even include the ivory-billed woodpecker, despite the remote possibility that a few are still around.

There is, however, a lesser-known species whose demise in many ways paralleled that of the passenger pigeon: the Eskimo curlew. Like the passenger pigeon, its population dropped from millions to zero in a very short period of time.

The Eskimo curlew was a large shorebird. Its name curlew derives from its 1½-inch long decurved bill. There are other species in the curlew’s Numenius genus: one that is occasionally seen here is the whimbrel.

Arthur Cleveland Bent says of this species, “The story of the Eskimo curlew is just one more pitiful tale of the slaughter of the innocents. It is a sad fact that the countless swarms of this fine bird and the passenger pigeon, which once swept across our land on migrations, are gone forever, sacrificed to the insatiable greed of man.”

If this shorebird had been able to remain through the year on its nesting grounds, it would almost certainly be with us today, for it summered in the extreme northwestern strands of Alaska and possibly nearby Russia along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. Unfortunately, each fall it migrated south down through the eastern Canadian provinces and United States all the way to Patagonia, returning in spring up through the Mississippi valley. Guns were trained on it all along those passages.

Bent describes this problem: “The gunner’s name for the Eskimo curlew was doughbird, for it was so fat when it reached us in the fall that its breast would often burst open when it fell to the ground, and the thick layer of fat was so soft that it felt like a ball of dough. It is no wonder that it was so popular as a game bird, for it must have made a delicious morsel for the table.”

He goes on to say, “It was so tame and unsuspicious and it flew in such dense flocks that it was easily killed in large numbers. On the Labrador coasts and in Newfoundland, the inhabitants killed all they could and preserved them for winter use.”

Even more were killed in spring as they flew back north through the mid-continent.

Myron Swenk, who wrote a monograph for the Smithsonian Institution about the Eskimo curlew, described the out-of-control behavior of market hunters during the spring migration: “During such flights, the slaughter of these poor birds was appalling and almost unbelievable. Hunters would drive out from Omaha and shoot the birds without mercy until they had literally slaughtered a wagonload of them. Sometimes, when the flight was unusually heavy and the hunters were well supplied with ammunition, their wagons were too quickly and easily filled, so whole loads of the birds would be dumped on the prairie, their bodies forming piles as large as a couple of tons of coal, where they would be allowed to rot while the hunters proceeded to fill their wagons with fresh victims.”

Swenk describes how easily the birds were killed: “The compact flocks and tameness of the birds made this slaughter possible, and at each shot usually dozens of birds would fall. In one specific instance, a single shot from an old muzzle-loading shotgun into a flock of these curlews as they veered by the hunter brought down 28 birds at once.”

This appalling behavior shows mankind at its worst. No one, including every hunter I know, would justify it. The result was predictable. The birds were almost gone by the end of the 19th century. A few remained, but the last confirmed sighting of the Eskimo curlew was in 1963.