Family Sandpipers, Snipes, Phalaropes (Scolopacidae)

Near Threatened

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

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Taxonomy

French: Courlis cendré German: Großer Brachvogel Spanish: Zarapito real
Taxonomy:

Scolopax Arquata

Linnaeus

, 1758,

Sweden

.

Name suschkini sometimes spelt erroneously as sushkini. Racial variation clinal; suschkini sometimes treated as a synonym of orientalis, but apparently distinct enough#R. Three subspecies recognized.

Subspecies and Distribution
  • N. a. arquata (Linnaeus, 1758) – British Is and France across W Europe (N to Arctic Circle) and E to R Volga and Urals; winters from Iceland and British Is S to Mediterranean and NW Africa, and E to Persian Gulf and W India.
  • N. a. suschkini Neumann, 1929 – lower R Volga and Urals E to SW Siberia and N Kazakhstan; winters along coasts of sub-Saharan Africa and SW Asia.
  • N. a. orientalis C. L. Brehm, 1831 – C Siberia E through C Russia to NE China (C Heilongjiang); winters in E & S Africa, Madagascar, and from S Caspian Sea S to Persian Gulf and E through S Asia to E China and S Japan, and S to Philippines and Greater Sundas.
  • Descriptive notes

    50–60 cm; male 410–1010 g, female 475–1360 g; wingspan 80–100 cm. Large greyish-brown curlew with long bill and plain head pattern; head, neck, breast and upperparts buffy brown with dark streaking, although plumage variable; pale underwing, white rump and lower back; belly white, flanks streaked. Most similar to N. madagascariensis, but bill less massive and usually shorter; underparts whiter. Female averages larger, especially in having longer bill, but also on average in wing length (286–326 mm, versus 276–302 mm in male)#R. Non-breeding adult has breast and upperparts grey-brown and underparts whiter. Juvenile has breast more buff and flanks less streaked; upperparts with buff spotting and fringes. Race orientalis usually paler, with underwing-coverts and axillaries largely unmarked; lower rump may be more barred and inner wing paler, but considerable overlap. Race suschkini is similar to nominate in overall size and bill length, but in plumage is extremely similar to orientalis (and may be indistinguishable from latter in the field, although the tail has more contrasting black and white bars, not brown and white).

    ssp arquata  

    Drawing by Francesc Jutglar
    ssp arquata  
    Descriptive notes:

    50–60 cm; male 410–1010 g, female 475–1360 g; wingspan 80–100 cm. Large greyish-brown curlew with long bill and plain head pattern; head, neck, breast and upperparts buffy brown with dark streaking, although plumage variable; pale underwing, white rump and lower back; belly white, flanks streaked. Most similar to N. madagascariensis, but bill less massive and usually shorter; underparts whiter. Female averages larger, especially in having longer bill, but also on average in wing length (286–326 mm, versus 276–302 mm in male)#R. Non-breeding adult has breast and upperparts grey-brown and underparts whiter. Juvenile has breast more buff and flanks less streaked; upperparts with buff spotting and fringes. Race orientalis usually paler, with underwing-coverts and axillaries largely unmarked; lower rump may be more barred and inner wing paler, but considerable overlap. Race suschkini is similar to nominate in overall size and bill length, but in plumage is extremely similar to orientalis (and may be indistinguishable from latter in the field, although the tail has more contrasting black and white bars, not brown and white).

    ssp orientalis  

    Drawing by Juan M. Varela
    ssp orientalis  
    Descriptive notes:

    50–60 cm; male 410–1010 g, female 475–1360 g; wingspan 80–100 cm. Large greyish-brown curlew with long bill and plain head pattern; head, neck, breast and upperparts buffy brown with dark streaking, although plumage variable; pale underwing, white rump and lower back; belly white, flanks streaked. Most similar to N. madagascariensis, but bill less massive and usually shorter; underparts whiter. Female averages larger, especially in having longer bill, but also on average in wing length (286–326 mm, versus 276–302 mm in male)#R. Non-breeding adult has breast and upperparts grey-brown and underparts whiter. Juvenile has breast more buff and flanks less streaked; upperparts with buff spotting and fringes. Race orientalis usually paler, with underwing-coverts and axillaries largely unmarked; lower rump may be more barred and inner wing paler, but considerable overlap. Race suschkini is similar to nominate in overall size and bill length, but in plumage is extremely similar to orientalis (and may be indistinguishable from latter in the field, although the tail has more contrasting black and white bars, not brown and white).

    Voice

    A loud rich, ringing “COURli ... COURli ... COURli ...” is heard at any time of year, being used in warning, contact and excitement, as well as alarm, while a loud, mellow and rapid ui-cui-cui-cui” can be mixed into the first call. Three main calls are used in territorial advertisement, two of which can be heard year-round, namely (1) a low, drawn-out, even-pitched and slow whistle (“whaup” call), given both in flight (especially during parachute display) and from ground, and is rendered “ooorr ... ooorr ... ooorr ...”; (2) a mellow bubbling call, either in crescendo or diminuendo, often slowing at end, but sometimes starting and ending with clear notes (i.e. no trilled effect), and which rises or falls in pitch, and can be heard throughout the year (being used outside breeding season in aggression); and (3) the high-intensity bubbling song, which basically combines the first two vocalizations, starting with several slowly delivered whistles that gradually accelerate and rise rapidly in pitch into bubbling notes (“k-r-r-r-li”) before often switching to high-pitched “curLEE-curLEE-curLEE-curLEE ...” calls, and sometimes ending with the same “whaup” calls that started the song; this vocalization can also be heard year-round and is given by both sexes. Also rarely gives tittering N. phaeopus-like notes.

    Habitat

    Breeds on peat bogs, fens, upland moors (where prefers areas of relatively heterogeneous vegetation)#R, damp grassland, grassy or boggy open areas in forest, extensive farmland, swampy and dry heathland, dune valleys and coastal marshes; increasing numbers breed in meadows. Breeds up to at least 760 m in Europe#R. In non-breeding period, chiefly on muddy coasts, bays and estuaries; also regularly on muddy shores of inland lakes and rivers, as well as on farmland in parts of range#R (including stubble fields, winter cereals and pasture)#R. During migration, also found on wet grassland and arable fields. Males are more likely to feed in inland grassland than females and in Sweden, in agricultural landscapes, it has been found that birds use grassland for foraging early in breeding season but shift to cereal fields later#R.

    Food and feeding

    Throughout year, diet includes annelids, arthropods, crustaceans, molluscs, berries and seeds; occasionally vertebrates, including small fish, amphibians, lizards, young birds (and possibly eggs) and small rodents; chiefly terrestrial insects and earthworms, especially in summer. In winter, in SW Spain, main food was shore crabs (Carcinus maenas)#R. Has been recorded killing (but not consuming a White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)#R and opportunistically taking African desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria)#R. Feeds by pecking, jabbing or deep probing in mud or damp soil, sometimes rather dexteriously. Occasionally seizes food from conspecifics or other wader species, but in turn this species is kleptoparastized by several gulls (Larus spp.)#R. Some birds territorial on wintering grounds, others feed gregariously; in France at this season, foraging activities of birds on mudflats peaked 4–9 hours after high tide#R. Long-billed females tend to forage more on intertidal flats, feeding on molluscs, crabs and polychaetes, while shorter-billed males tend to feed more on lumbricids on cultivated grassland; a recent French study, where both sexes fed on intertidal mudflats, also reported sexual segregation in prey, with males selecting more shore crabs, whereas females favoured bivalves#R.

    Breeding

    Lays Apr to early Jul. Monogamous and territorial, with most territory defence by male, usually using undulating display flight, which is most frequently witnessed early during breeding season. High degree of site fidelity and pair-bond can be maintained between years. Densities of up to 10 pairs/km², with some evidence for extra-pair copulation and greater male vigilance in higher-density populations#R. Two females may occasionally lay in same nest#R, which is typically in open, often in grass or sedge cover; a large depression (15–24 cm wide by 3–12 cm deep), lined with dry grass and feathers#R, constructed by male#R. Four eggs (range 2–5, exceptionally up to seven being product of two females), with laying interval of 1–2 days, colour green to olive marked with brown and grey#R, mean size 67·6 mm × 47·9 mm; single brood; incubation 26–30 days, by both sexes equally or mainly by female, starting on clutch completion#R; chick pale ochraceous-buff above clouded with blackish brown, black crown and creamy buff on belly, hatch weight c. 50–55 g#R; both adults care for young; fledging 32–38 days, with females frequently deserting family group approximately halfway through this period, even earlier in late broods#R. Including unsuccessful clutches, production c. 1·7 hatchlings/pair, and 0·25–1·4 fledlings/pair; reproductive success is higher in semi-natural habitats than in farmland, and lowest on intensively cultivated land; on farmland, nest failure caused by predation and farming practices, with rates of predation across Europe (e.g. in Germany) apparently increasing dramatically#R#R and estimated at more than 70%#R; red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and Carrion Crows (Corvus corone) judged to be important causes of failure in upland Britain#R; fledgling survival until maturity c. 30%. Annual mortality 66% in first year, deceasing to 18% until third year; annual adult survival (both sexes) in UK c. 90% (during period 1974–2011)#R. Age of first breeding two years. Oldest ringed birds at least 32 years.

    Movements

    Mostly migratory; some birds resident in W of range, especially in British Is and Ireland. Small numbers regularly winter in Iceland and Faeroes. Scandinavian and Baltic populations move SW to W European coast. The subspecies mix in Balkans after breeding, and probably in winter quarters from Mediterranean to W India. Nominate arquata presumably winters as far S as Banc d’Arguin (Mauritania), Morocco, Algeria and Italy, with orientalis occupying rest of African wintering grounds, e.g. birds wintering in Guinea-Bissau largely originate from C Siberia, and at least some wintering at Banc d’Arguin may also be orientalis#R. Some transcontinental migration in Africa, e.g. across Sahara. Most birds winter at moulting grounds, with little evidence of post-moulting movements. High fidelity to wintering grounds, although changes may be forced during unusually cold conditions, e.g. French wintering population in last quarter of 20th century was typically 18,000 birds, rising to up to 39,000 individuals when hard weather forced numbers further N to relocate S#R (however, within the last decade have been consistently much larger, despite series of relatively mild winters)#R. Southward migration Jun–Nov, starting with non-breeders and adult females; return starts Feb, but mainly Mar–Apr; migration to Fennoscandian and Russian breeding grounds mainly mid Apr to early May. Four individuals tagged with data loggers at the Wadden Sea, Germany, left the area during Apr and migrated to their breeding grounds in NW Russia within 2–4 days; all individuals remained in the breeding area for 51–53 days, and then returned to the same place in the Wadden Sea where they had been caught#R. Many first-years remain in winter quarters all year. Vagrants have been recorded widely, including Australia (probably orientalis) and North America (presumably arquata, where < 5 records in NE, in autumn to spring, and one record in Florida, in autumn) and Bermuda#R.

    Status and conservation

    Not globally threatened. Currently considered Near Threatened. Global population thought to number c. 77,000–1,065,000 individuals (2006 data#R#R), of which > 190,000 birds wintered in Britain and Ireland in late 1980s/early 1990s#R and c. 180,000 in UK alone a decade later#R, with c. 90,000 in Wadden Sea (Germany/Netherlands) and c. 15,000 in France#R. Estimated 212,000–292,000 pairs in Europe, of which 76,000–88,000 in Finland, 45,000–53,000 in Britain and Ireland and 45,000–100,000 pairs in Russia#R, but species is strongly declining in neighbouring Ukraine#R. Much smaller numbers elsewhere, especially in S of range, e.g. just 10–20 pairs in Slovenia#R. Has occasionally bred in Spain, e.g. in 1993, and in coastal Italy, e.g. 2011#R. Most European breeding populations have declined, some, e.g. in Croatia, to extinction, with other significant decreases registered in Germany (now stable at fewer than 5000 pairs)#R, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland#R; numbers of wintering populations have dropped even more. In UK breeding population declines during 1995–2013 amounted to 55% in Scotland (especially in heather moorland)#R and 32% in England (locally higher in lowland grasslands)#R, while that in Northern Ireland fell by 58% between 1987 and 1999#R (by 2013, numbers were 82% smaller than in 1987)#R and in the Republic of Ireland 12,000 pairs were estimated in early 1980s but not more than 150 pairs in 2015#R. Numbers of orientalis wintering in SW Asia and E Africa exceed 28,000 birds; 15,000–20,000 counted in Iran in 1970s; however, E China alone holds at least 82,000 birds#R (versus a previous flyway estimate of just 35,000 birds)#R. Elsewhere in S Asia numbers poorly known, although c. 1000 are thought to winter in Bangladesh#R and some numbers have recently been discovered in NE Sumatra#R. Decline of nominate race probably due mainly to loss of breeding habitat and loss and fragmentation of grassland, caused by agricultural intensification, e.g., heavy egg and chick mortality occurs if grassland is cut, and predation is high in agriculturally improved habitats; “improvement” of marginal grassland known to reduce breeding numbers. In Ireland, afforestation of moorlands has led to decline in breeding pairs, and presence of isolated plantations within upland landscapes facilitates constant pressure from predators in other areas too#R. Wintering populations affected by disturbance and building developments on high-tide roosts, by pollution, and locally by intensive hunting. On passage, the species is also threatened by the degradation of migration staging areas due to land reclamation, pollution, human disturbance and reduced river flows, perhaps especially in E Asia#R. Monitored European population has fallen by 42% since 1980#R and still estimated to be decreasing by 30–49% in 31·2 years (three generations)#R, although halts to the decline have been reported from some areas in recent years#R and species appears to be increasing over last decade in Fennoscandia#R. Given widespread and sustained population declines, species is now considered Vulnerable at the European level#R. A European management plan was published in 2007#R. Recommended conservation measures include protection of wintering sites and reductions in intensive farming, while predator control could at least ameliorate the decline#R and simple best-practice procedures, such as delaying grass harvesting, are known to facilitate local recovery#R. At same time, population trends should continue to be monitored and key parameters driving declines in breeding areas determined.

    Recommended citation

    Van Gils, J., Wiersma, P., Kirwan, G.M. & Sharpe, C.J. (2017). Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/53897 on 25 May 2017).