It is hard to imagine what it would be like to have to feed, preen, scratch, drink, fly and mate with an 8″ bill! That is what the Long-Billed Curlew has to do each and every day. It is a fascinating bird to watch as it quickly walks along feeding; it shows an amazing amount of dexterity as it manipulates its long down curved bill. Unfortunately, these birds are threatened with extinction due to loss their breeding habitats on the prairie.
The Long-Billed Curlew is the largest shorebird found in the United States. It has a small gray head but unlike the Whimbrel, it has no head stripes, just a slight white eyebrow. It has a long, thin neck and its body is mottled cinnamon with black above and buff below. It has an orange colored rump and a tail which is barred with dark brown. In flight, you might see its cinnamon wing linings. The adult male Curlew’s bill looks twice as long as its head and is much longer than the Whimbrel’s bill. His bill is curved downward all along its length. It is dark and fades to a pink tone near the base and has a blub shape near the tip. The female has a bill which is longer than the males; she can have a bill three times their head length. Her bill is flatter on the top and more curved at the bottom. Juveniles have shorter bills, but their bills will match the length of the adult male’s bill in about a year. It has long bluish-gray legs and feet with webbed front toes.
Range and Habitat
In winter they will move to warmer areas from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico and east to Texas and Florida. They settle down in tidal flats, beaches and salt marshes. In April they return to breed on the plains and prairies of the Mid-West.
They are seen in flocks when they are not in breeding season. On their wintering grounds, they use their long downward curved bills like a pair of forceps which allow them to probe in tidal mud for worms and mollusks. Their long bills allow them to reach crabs and shrimp in deep burrows on the mudflats. The end of the bill has separate muscles to control it, which acts like a finger. Since they feed either near the water or on dry land, they are also experts at picking berries off a bush, grabbing bugs that fly by or digging for earthworms that burrow in fields and pastures. The Long-Billed Curlew’s call is a loud “curlee”. It is a social bird when it is nesting, feeding and migrating. Because it has webbed front toes, it can swim if it wants to. It is a fast flyer and is able to fly up to 50 mph. Flocks fly in “V” shaped formations like geese when migrating.
Breeding and Nesting
Mating season is between April and September. The male Long-Bill Curlew displays by performing an undulating flight and calls to the female. He may breed with the same female from one year to the next. Their mottled coloring helps to disguise them while they are on the nest. The female will lay 4 olive spotted eggs in a grass lined nest in a hollow on the ground. Both parents defend the nest and incubate the eggs; the female usually incubates during the day and the male at night. The eggs hatch in about 30 days. After the eggs hatch the female will spend about two weeks with her young before she leaves the male to look after them. The male is a very good papa; he stays with them and feeds them mostly berries and insects until they fledge 6 weeks later.