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The Curlews are the Numenius genus of birds, this genus being part of the Scolopacidae family (Scolopacidae being waders or shorebirds).

The Curlew is characterized by a long, narrow, downwardly curved bill which is between 12 ½  and 18 centimeters in length.  These birds have a predominantly brown plumage which can best be described as patterned or streaked between dark shades of brown and very light shading of almost white colour.  The underparts are of a light coloration.  The plumage does not have any large seasonal changes in appearance.

Curlews feed mainly on insects, worms, crustaceans  and other shore creatures, which they search for with their long bill in swampy soils.  As well as seashores, they will find their food in  flat muddy areas and around river mouths.   To discover the creatures that make up their food the curlew will diligently probe the sand or mud, but will also keep an eye out for any molloscs or crustaceans which may be visible on the sand's or mud's surface.

They will also enjoy eating berries. On their long migrations they show a high flexibility with the types of food they will consume, including insects in their diet.

As soon as Curlew chicks are able to walk, they accompany their parents toward the waters where the birds feed.

There are 8 different species of Curlew:

  • The Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) breeds in the prairies of North America and migrates in the winter to the south coast of the USA, Mexico and occasionally to southern Central America.  Populations decreased as a result of hunting around the beginning of the 20th Century and this bird is still in quite a precaroius situation.
  • The Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) is common in Europe and Asia.  This is a large bird whose length is around 50 to 58 cemtimetres, with a wingspan of 1 metre.
  • The Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis) was known to breed in the Canadian Tundra.  This bird has possibly already become extinct. Last confirmed evidence of the Eskimo Curlew was a specimen in 1963 on Barbados.  Since then there have only been unconfirmed observations. The species was one of the most numerous birds of  North America in the 19th Century but numbers were drastically reduced by hunting.
  • The Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) breeds in east Siberia and Mongolia, migrates in the winter to Southeast Asia and Australia.  This bird is sometimes known by the slightly shorter name of "Eastern Curlew".
  • The Little Curlew (Numenius minutus) is a small curlew who breeds in Sibera and winters in North Australia.
  • The Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) breeds in the subarctic regions of Europe, North America and Asia, and winters in Africa, South America and south Asia.  In some areas of the UK the Whimbrel has also been known as "Jack Curlew" which is apparently as a result of its relatively tiny size.  It is also known as "Titterel" from the sound of one of its calls, and "May Fowl" which is due to the fact that it usually arrives in the UK in May.
  • The Bristle-thighed Curlew  (Numenius tahitiensis) breeds in western Alaska and Winters  in the islands of the Pacific. In this bird the shaft of most of the feathers clothing its legs is produced into a long glistening bristle.
  • The Slender-billed Curlew breeds in Siberia and winters in the Mediterranean area. In the 19th Century it was a very common species but numbers have dramatically decreased as a result of hunting and also the destruction of the wetlands in their wintering areas.  As at the time of writing this page in 2006, the Slender-billed curlew is currently believed to be at high risk of becoming extinct.

Stone Curlew

The Stone Curlew, on the other hand, is a bird which forms an entirely different family than the true curlews (detailed above), and the two groups of birds should not be confused.  The Stone Curlew can be differentiated from the true curlews from the straight bill of the stone Curlew.  Whereas the curlews (Numenius) are a genus within the Scolopacidae family, the Stone Curlews form the Burhinidae family. 
Picture of Stone Curlew Beak
Picture of Stone Curlew Beak


The cry of the Stone Curlew is very similar to the true Curlew, although has been described as a sweeter sound.  There are 9 species of stone-curlew, some referred to as "Thick-Knee".

Stone curlews are wary birds and if scared will often run for quite a distance before squatting down with their neck stretched out.  With their colouration which is so close in appearance to the sandy, flint strewn surface that it often inhabits, this way of evading danger results in the bird becoming virtually invisible, its large yellow eyes often being the first thing to become detectable when approaching the bird.

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