Friday, August 16, 2013
The Tragic Flight of the Eskimo Curlew
In the end, I have never seen one. They were already long gone as I grew up along with the majestic passenger pigeon. It is now official.
In the meantime, the long shooting gallery has also disappeared as we have largely left the land to industrial farming. Thus species recovery is now a future option for all extinct birds. We still have to complete our general conversion of agriculture to organic protocols to make it easy.
We blame ourselves of course and it may well be true. However, I also suspect that a coconspirator is the lowly rat who went after the eggs in the nesting sites. The demise was just too sudden and too complete to blame of sporadic human predation, at least for the passenger pigeon.
From endangered to extinct: t
By Randy Boswell, August 2, 2013 10:19 AM
It is — or was — a long-legged shorebird about the size of a mourning dove, with mottled brown feathers and a distinctively long, thin, downward-curving beak.
For the Eskimo curlew, a once-plentiful species of sandpiper that’s eerily linked in history to a better-known North American bird — the passenger pigeon — this is a watershed year.
Before the end of this summer, exactly 50 years will have passed since the last time an Eskimo curlew was seen alive anywhere in its vast range between Arctic Canada — where all that ever lived were hatched in northwest tundra breeding grounds — and its winter home on the pampas of Argentina.
It’s a sorrowful milestone: a half-century of utter absence from the scientific record for a creature once known for its prolific numbers, its epic migration, its widespread presence. Within Canada alone, the bird’s distinctive flight or head-bobbing gait have been witnessed, at one time or another, in every province and territory except British Columbia.
Now, though, the Eskimo curlew’s time is up. Under Canada’s endangered species protocols, the elapse of 50 years since the last confirmed sighting of any animal is a key criterion for formally declaring it extinct. And while it could take years for that to happen, when Canadian officials eventually do take the step it will be the first time since the passenger pigeon vanished almost a century ago — in 1914 — that any bird in Canada will be officially classified as lost forever.
Environmental politics in Canada is largely about weighing “risks” and “threats” to wildlife and ecosystems against the benefits of economic development, with debates typically revolving around uncertain impacts and other disputed facts. But there is no ambiguity with extinction; a formal declaration of a lost species — particularly when human actions are known to underlie the disappearance — is also an admission of failure and an instantly symbolic moment.
The fate of the Eskimo curlew is also seen as a worrisome omen for other Canadian bird species, particularly at a time when ongoing habitat destruction and climate change are transforming northern nesting sites and important migration stopover spots.
At an Ottawa conference in June, Birdlife International released its latest State of the World’s Birds report and warned that, globally, about one of every eight species — totalling more than 1,300 distinctive genetic lineages — is currently at risk of extinction. And the impending disappearances of the Eskimo curlew and another 200 species described as “on the brink” of extinction are sentinels of a sick planet, the U.K.-based organization warned.
“As a marker, it’s a significant event,” says Jon McCracken, director of national programs at Bird Studies Canada and editor of a 2009 report on the Eskimo curlew issued by COSEWIC, the federally mandated Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
While the “50-year threshold is a guideline” and not a “hard and fast rule,” notes McCracken, a contributor to the State of the World’s Birds report, he says a half-century gap between credible sightings of a fragile species means rediscovering it is only “a very slim probability.”
That was also the conclusion of a 2011 status report on the Eskimo curlew by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which cited one study indicating the likelihood that the species still exists at 0.0003 per cent. The calculation was based on the amount of time that has passed since the last confirmed report of a live Eskimo curlew — a September 1963 sighting by a market hunter in Barbados.
That man promptly shot and killed the bird, which was probably stopping for a rest during its migration between Canada’s Atlantic shore to its distant wintering grounds in South America.
Decades of dashed hopes for a fresh glimpse of an Eskimo curlew have followed, leading many experts to conclude that the species has already gone the way of the dodo — or, in terms of Canadian avian calamities, the Labrador duck, the Great Auk and, most infamously, the passenger pigeon.
Remarkable for having blackened North America’s skies in the mid-1800s with such vast flocks their migrations would blot out the sun for hours, the passenger pigeon became a favoured food for pioneers and a prime target for hunters before the last known member of that species — a captive at the Cincinnati Zoo — died on Sept. 1, 1914.
In the late 1800s, the dwindling supply of passenger pigeons had already prompted the continent’s bird-baggers to set their sights on a new, tasty and still-abundant species: the Eskimo curlew.
And then, tragically, history repeated itself.
The curlew’s numbers began to decrease, to dive, and finally to plummet — the result of overhunting, altered habitats and the extinction of a key food source on its northward migrations, the Rocky Mountain locust, which disappeared as great swaths of the North American plains were plowed for agriculture by the early 1900s.
The last recorded sighting of an Eskimo curlew in Canada was at Battle Creek, Labrador, in 1932. In 1962, a Texas birdwatcher’s photographs of a single Eskimo curlew along the Gulf Coast offered a brief moment of exhilaration among those praying for a comeback.
But then, on Sept. 4, 1963, the Barbadian hunter spied what is recorded as the last living Eskimo curlew on Earth and blasted it with lead shot. The lonely specimen was placed in a freezer and eventually given to a distinguished U.S. ornithologist named James Bond — an acquaintance, as it happens, of the British spy novelist Ian Fleming, an avid birdwatcher and owner of Bond’s definitive Birds of the West Indies.
Bond, namesake for Fleming’s indestructible fictional agent 007, garnered headlines around the world after retrieving the curlew’s carcass and depositing it in a Philadelphia museum, where it remains to this day.
There is a remarkable passage about the Eskimo curlew, Numenius borealis, in the journals of John James Audubon, the famed 19th-century artist and naturalist whose exquisite paintings constitute a globally cherished record of the birdlife of pre-industrial North America.
While on a trip to Labrador in August 1833, he wrote admiringly of the diminutive species of sandpiper, which he found to be “difficult birds to represent” but intriguing for their habit of “squatting to elude the eye” of human observers, of feeding on berries “with a rapidity equalled only by that of the passenger pigeon,” of “sweeping over the ground” in elegant patterns of flight, “cutting backward and forward in the most interesting manner, and now and then poising in the air like a Hawk in sight of quarry.”
Audubon was a crack shot who killed birds so that he could closely study the creatures’ feathers and other traits while creating his masterpieces. He duly noted in his Labrador Journal how he saw “many hundreds this afternoon, and shot seven” to help him create what would become one of the artist’s signature scenes: a female Eskimo curlew sprawled lifeless before its mate.
Audubon, who once noted that the Eskimo curlews arrive each summer in Labrador “in such dense flocks as to remind me of the Passenger Pigeons,” could not have imagined the eventual disappearance of the two species or that his own firearm, however infinitesimally, might contribute to their demise.
It was a Canadian writer, the late journalist and naturalist Fred Bodsworth, who poignantly captured the coming eclipse of the Eskimo curlew in his landmark 1954 novel Last of the Curlews. A kind of textual representation of Audubon’s forlorn portrait of the species, Bodsworth’s book told the story of a mating pair unaware, naturally, that they were the last of their kind.
The narrative follows their miraculous meeting on a Patagonian shore and epic flight north toward an Arctic nesting site. En route, a Canadian farmer’s gun ends the romance and snuffs out the species’ already-slim chance of survival.
“The male called wildly for her to follow,” Bodsworth writes at the sad climax of the tale. “But the female didn’t move. He circled and re-circled above and his plaintive cries must have reached her, but she didn’t call back.”
Bodsworth, who died last year in Toronto at age 93, is credited with fostering such concern and affection for Canadian wildlife through his writing that Last of the Curlews may well have helped prevent other species from following the bird’s path to oblivion.
“I read that book as a kid,” noted McCracken, who attended Bodsworth’s memorial service. “And it’s one of the things that led me to become a biologist.”
Nearly a decade would pass after the publication of Last of the Curlews — which inspired an Emmy Award-winning animated film — before the last known real-life curlew drew the Caribbean hunter’s deadly fire in 1963.
Since then, there have been sporadic reports of Eskimo curlew sightings throughout North America, but most have been dismissed as mistaken glimpses of a look-alike sandpiper — the slightly larger whimbrel — and none has been verified.
Graeme Gibson, the Canadian author and nature advocate who wrote the foreword to a 1991 reprinting of Bodsworth’s book, recalled his own fleeting thrill one day upon seeing two shorebirds that, “from a distance,” were “the right shape and colour” to be Eskimo curlews.
“They were whimbrels,” Gibson lamented, acknowledging that the Eskimo curlew is “almost certainly coming to the end of its more than 200,000 years of life on earth.”
In 2009, the COSEWIC report edited by McCracken grimly observed that the bird “is now one of the world’s most endangered species, if in fact it still survives.”
The report also noted that “no nests have been reported for over 100 years, despite extensive surveys in historical breeding areas,” but did record the faintly hopeful thought that a few reported sightings since 1963 “seem plausible.”
Such “intriguing” reports — none, alas, accompanied by photographs — at least “make you pause and wonder, well, maybe there’s something to them,” said McCracken.
What’s more likely, though, is that the Eskimo curlew — now set to reach the 50-year mark since the last clear proof of its existence — will soon be formally written off as gone, with the best hope for its legacy a renewed sense of urgency to prevent other endangered animals from vanishing, too.