The curlews are one of the most widespread and far-travelling of all the bird families — and also one of the most threatened. It seems that wherever they roam, habitat loss and human encroachment follows. We can’t let the Far Eastern Curlew go the same way as its fellows.
The Numeniini — a tribe of large waders including curlews and godwits — is one of the most threatened bird groups on the planet. The once-abundant Eskimo Curlew Numenius borealis of the Americas is now considered Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct), having last been spotted with certainty in the 1960s. But the plight of the Numeniini also extends over the Atlantic into the Old World. Here, the extensive drainage of wetlands across the Mediterranean and North Africa — important wintering grounds for many migratory birds across the African-Eurasian Flyway — has rendered another species, the Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris, missing in action for almost a quarter of a century.
Like the Eskimo Curlew, the possibility of the extinction of the Slender-billed Curlew cannot be confirmed for sure until we have scoured the entirety of its known breeding grounds in the Siberian wilderness for a remnant population. And although it hasn’t been recorded with confidence across its wintering range since February 1995, it’s possible that a few remaining Slender-billed Curlews — gregarious birds by nature — are still making the long trip south as part of a flock of a more common species, such as Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata or Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus.
Attempts to track down a straggling Slender-billed Curlew population continue, with the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) recently using environmental data, gleaned from tiny atoms harvested from museum specimens, to pinpoint a potential breeding ground in the Kazakh steppes. But with each year that passes, it becomes more likely that Europe has suffered its first avian extinction since the Great Auk Pinguinus impennis croaked its last in 1852.