Long-billed curlews are the largest shorebirds in North America. They are one of eight species of curve-billed shorebirds in the genus Numenius, many of which are experiencing rapid population declines, and two of which, Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew are recently extinct or likely so, respectively. Long-billed Curlews are a notable exception. Overall, their populations appear to be stable (Sauer et al. 2017), but some populations are in rapid decline (Pollock et al. 2014). Long-billed Curlews occupy a wide range of grassland and agricultural habitats during the breeding season, and an even wider range of habitats including coastal areas during the wintering period. They have a broad geographic distribution, breeding across western North American and wintering from coastal & inland California, through the arid intermountain grasslands of central Mexico, to the gulf coast and occasionally the Atlantic coast of Florida and Georgia. There is a large multi-partner effort underway to study the migratory connectivity of the species across its range.
Body length: 500–650 mm
Bill: 113–219 mm
Mass: 450-950 grams, with females significantly larger than males
Conservation Status: Least Concern
Long-billed curlews are associated with grassland ecosystems throughout the great plains. They co-evolved with huge herds of bison and massive colonies of prairie-dogs, whose grazing activities, in concert with grass fires, modified the vegetation structure of grasslands for thousands of years. Today, bison, prairie-dogs and fire are largely absent from the great plains, having been replaced with domestic cattle. In some places, these keystone species are being restored to large landscapes, including at the American Prairie Reserve and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. We are interested in how habitat selection and movement patterns of Long-billed curlews are influenced by the presence of bison and prairie-dogs and how fine-scale habitat selection changes as offspring transition from eggs to independent young.
Beyond breeding season, solar-powered GPS tags allow us to learn how curlews select habitats for wintering and stopover, and even how migration is influenced by weather patterns in the central flyway. The animation below shows the long distance migrations of five curlews from Montana to central Mexico.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) Conservation Ecology Center
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
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