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Long-billed Curlew Life History



Long-billed Curlews spend the summers in areas of western North America with sparse, short grasses, including shortgrass and mixed-grass prairies as well as agricultural fields. After their young leave the nest they may move to areas with taller, denser grasses. En route to their wintering grounds along the coast and interior Mexico, they use shortgrass prairies, alkali lakes, wet pastures, tidal mudflats, and agricultural fields. In winter you can find them in wetlands, tidal estuaries, mudflats, flooded fields less than 6 inches deep, and beaches.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Long-billed Curlews eat insects, marine crustaceans, and bottom-dwelling marine invertebrates. The remarkably long, downcurved bill allows curlews to forage for earthworms and other deep-burrowing prey such as shrimp and crabs. Sometimes Long-billed Curlews simply peck at the ground, eating grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and occasionally eggs and nestlings.

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Nest Placement


Courting males make scrapes in the ground in dry areas with low vegetation; females choose one of the scrapes. Nests are often near objects such as rocks or piles of dirt or manure, perhaps to use as landmarks, provide shade, or hide the nest.

Nest Description

Males begin by making a simple, shallow scrape in the ground. Females also contribute, using the breast and bill to shovel out a depression in the ground. Once they form the depression, they use pebbles, bark, animal droppings, grass, stems, twigs, and seeds to line the nest.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.3-2.9 in (5.9-7.4 cm)
Egg Width:1.6-2.0 in (4.2-5 cm)
Incubation Period:27-31 days
Egg Description:

Creamy-brown to greenish with greenish-brown or purplish-gray markings.

Condition at Hatching:

Hatches with eyes open and covered in down. Able to leave the nest 5 hours after hatching.

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Long-billed Curlews walk or run along the ground. When they are ready to take flight, they jump into the air, toss their legs behind them, and pull their neck in slightly. Upon landing they swing their wings upward, flutter briefly, and touch down on their long legs before bringing their wings down. They may also run a short distance on the ground before coming to a stop. They often search for prey in groups, walking side by side to flush up grasshoppers and other insects during the breeding season. Around the nest, however, curlews are highly territorial and perform threat displays toward intruders. Individuals may crouch down and lift their wings slightly while running toward the intruder. This crouch-and-run display is sometimes used with a concealment display, where individuals flop down on the ground until the intruder gets close, spring up into a crouch-and-run display, and then flop back down again, repeating the entire cycle until the intruder leaves. Males court females with aerial displays, calling, and ritualized scraping and nest-building gestures. In aerial displays males flutter up to 50 feet above the ground and start descending with their head stretched out, wings curved downward, and legs tucked up into the body while calling. Males also scrape the ground, making potential nest sites and tossing bits of vegetation into the scrape. Pairs form monogamous bonds during the breeding season, and some may pair with the same mate in subsequent seasons. During migration and on the wintering grounds, Long-billed Curlews forage in small groups and with other shorebirds including Willets and Marbled Godwits. They rest, sometimes standing on one leg with their long bill tucked under their shoulder.

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Low Concern

Long-billed Curlews are uncommon but their populations were steady from 1966 to 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimate the global breeding population at 140,000 individuals. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. Long-billed Curlews were much more numerous in the nineteenth century and bred over a much larger area including parts of Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, and Arizona. Populations were extirpated in these regions due to hunting and conversion of their grassland breeding habitat to agriculture prior to 1900. Long-billed Curlews also used to be common along the Atlantic coast in winter, but now rarely occur there. The major continuing threat to Long-billed Curlews is habitat loss owing both to development and projected effects of climate change. For example, more than 75% of Canadian native grasslands are gone, and wintering habitat in California wetlands has declined by 90%. Pesticide spraying may harm curlews indirectly by reducing the birds' food supplies, particularly grasshoppers.

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Dugger, Bruce D. and Katie M. Dugger. (2002). Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Pieplow, N. (2017). Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, NY, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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