American Birding Podcast



The Chittering Curlew

Image 1 – Chittering (Eskimo) Curlew, Photographed by Don Bleitz, Galveston, Texas, 1962

Ben Feltner had never seen a whimbrel. Houston birders had hinted that the bird might be found in grazed coastal prairie on west Galveston Island. Beach houses and strip malls had yet to scar that landscape. Ranchers worked the coastal prairie, and fields there were clipped as close as a putting green.

Ben, along with Dudley Deaver, worked his way west from the city. Wandering through the ranch lands bordering the beach, Ben noticed a small curlew pacing along a barbed wire fence. There were golden-plovers nearby, as well as long-billed curlews. Something about this one bird, this slight curlew barely larger than a plover, struck him.

I cannot tell you when the light came on for Ben. He must have been around 19 or 20 then, but his skills were no doubt already mature. Ben Feltner is the first “good” birder I ever knew, and he remains the birder against which I judge others. He may have not known the curlew at first, but I am sure that he began weighing the field marks within minutes of this first encounter.

The Houston birding community in 1959 counted only a few hundred members at best. The local birding group, the Ornithology Group, met monthly and those meetings presented opportunities to exchange reports, tips, and experiences. A mimeographed newsletter (The Spoonbill), printed on pink paper, represented the only record of sightings and reports. Unless you were fortunate and included in one of the rare bird telephone trees, you were dusted. You were lumped with the rest of the outside world who read about the rare bird in Birdlore a year later.

Yet Ben certainly knew birders, and one among them, Joe Heiser, had seen an Eskimo (chittering in the Caribbean) curlew in Galveston in 1945. Joe, a birder and conservationist before there were many of either, took many young local birders under his wing, including Victor Emanuel. Victor would soon begin the Freeport CBC and join with Ben in organizing Peregrine Birding Tours (predating VENT).

I missed all of this. Ben and Vic are a decade older than me, and the chittering curlews were gone before I reached puberty. But I have known both for most of my life (certainly my adult life). They were and are consummate birders, and Ben’s find ignited a groundswell of interest that still smolders today.

The Eskimo or chittering curlew played hide-and-seek with Texas birders for most of the 20th century. Between 1905 and 1945 there were none reported from the state. There were none between 1945 and Ben’s bird in 1959 except for Heiser's Galveston bird. Most birders and researchers considered them extinct.

Cheyenne Bottoms Sunset with Waterfowl 600

Image 2 – Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas (TLE)

They weren’t. To not see a chittering curlew in the spring does not mean that there are none. I can think of few birds that migrate through habitats (interior grasslands, coastal prairie) with less birding pressure. How many birders in Kansas and Nebraska are parked in the prairies, scouring each flock of American golden-plovers that courses over a burned patch? The bird breeds where there are no birders, migrates a path where there are few birders, and winters where they are fewer still. If you do not look, you will not see. For the chittering curlew, there is no one watching.

They are still shooting, though. American wildlife faced a murderous barrage from market shooters after the Civil War, and the chittering curlew did not escape the onslaught. American bison, eastern elk, pronghorn, white-tailed deer (extirpated in states such as Pennsylvania), wild turkey, passenger pigeon, most waterfowl, and most shorebirds (particularly American golden-plover and Eskimo curlew) were subjected to a relentless pasting by market hunters. Only the newly minted game laws and ethics of the early 1900s brought this to some semblance of a halt. Most wildlife species squeaked through those murderous years. The chittering curlew barely escaped complete annihilation.

Shooting is present tense in America. Over 100 million birds are killed each year in the U.S. by hunters. Regulated hunting, unlike the market hunting of the late 19th century, ties harvest (the nice word for kill) to sustainability. Game birds are killed at a rate that the population can sustain. Excise taxes on hunting supplies and equipment (Pittman-Robertson) fund habitat conservation and enhancements that have restored many of these bird populations. The laws came too late for the chittering curlew. For all of the 20th century, the bird edged toward extinction.

The curlew did not escape the fusillade in the fall either. Although the bird migrated through the Great Plains in spring (facing the fire of market hunters), in fall they migrated across to Labrador and then flew virtually nonstop to the grasslands of southern South America for winter. Curlews regularly stopped en route in the wetlands of Barbados and Guadeloupe to rest and recover. Crookbills (another Caribbean name for curlew) and plovers would swarm over "black ground," and many would fall to the hunter’s shot. In September 1963 a shooter on Barbados killed the last chittering curlew known to science. In September 1963 a shooter completed the cycle begun in the dark prairies of the American Great Plains.

Whimbrel; Bolivar Flats, Texas; 9 July 2006

Image 3 – Whimbrel (Numenius phaoepus) (TLE)

Or did he? Did the story of the chittering curlew end in Barbados? Shooting is present tense in the Caribbean. Shooters at private clubs still kill tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of shorebirds annually, including lesser yellowlegs (50% of the take at many clubs), greater yellowlegs, American golden-plover, pectoral sandpiper, and whimbrel.

Bird shooting is a colonial tradition like soccer or afternoon tea, one of those pastimes brought to the New World by Europeans. BirdLife International with David Wege and Wayne Burke is working diligently with local shooters on Barbados to try to ratchet down the numbers of shorebirds being killed annually. Progress has been made, but the number of shorebirds killed there annually is still around 26,000 (with at least a partial agreement to lower that annual kill to 22,500).

The slaughter in Guadeloupe and Martinique, however, continues unabated. There are wildlife professionals such as Anthony Levesque (with the National Hunting and Wildlife Agency) who have toiled to get a better grasp of the hunting issue there and to nurture change. Nonprofits such as AMAZONA-Guadeloupe supply an advocate's voice. But the two satellite tagged whimbrels recently shot in Guadeloupe, Machi and Goshen, were still plugged by local shooters after they were grounded on the island after passing through a tropical storm. A chittering curlew grounded in Guadeloupe or Martinique today faces that same shooting barrage that killed the last bird in 1963.

According to a recent report,

About 14-15 species are harvested on these two islands by approximately 1,400 hunters on Martinique and 3,000 hunters on Guadeloupe.  The season runs from July to January, and no daily bag limits are set…Although there are no reliable estimates for the magnitude of the harvest, a single hunter has been known to harvest 500-1,000 shorebirds per season.

Consider the implications of this report. There are around 4400 hunters on the two islands. Let's assume that the 500-1000 shorebirds killed per hunter is an extreme. What if each kills 100 per year? Now we are near a half a million. What about 200? What about 500? Whatever the true number (which is not determined), the number quickly becomes astronomical. 

How many birds are wounded for each one killed? Those that are incapacitated are retrieved and killed or kept as live decoys (shooters use both live decoys and recorded calls). Those that can fly will continue on to die out of sight and mind. What about collateral loss? Shooters can whistle birds into the swamps with amazing skill, but I have never seen a shooter who could whistle shot into a tighter pattern. 

The shooters in the Caribbean are still using lead shot. Shooting clubs have hunted the same swamps and wetlands for generations. Do we know how concentrated the lead shot is in the substrate? The mortality associated with lead poisoning would extend to non-target species as well. Do we know those impacts?

Finally, what do we know about the cost of displacement? A significant number of these birds are grounded by weather. They are attracted to the wetlands by a need to rest, refuel, and to rehydrate. If they are displaced by shooting at one swamp, do we know where they go? Once they have been displaced by shooting (the ones that survive), are these birds capable of the remaining flight to their wintering grounds? 

In truth, shooting logs (the few that researchers have access to) only provide a list of the species and number of individuals killed. But isn't mortality the sum of birds reported killed plus the birds killed inadvertently and not reported plus a percentage of birds wounded plus a percentage of birds displaced plus a percentage of birds poisoned by lead shot? Although the numbers above may seem astronomical, isn't a more realistic estimate of mortality significantly higher?

Let's go back to our 100-per-shooter estimate. Given that number, since 1963 there have been around 25 million shorebirds killed on these two islands. Do you believe that there has not been a single chittering curlew among the bunch? Remember, these shooters are not obligated to report their take (and, for the most part, they don't). Is there anyone in a better position to confirm the continued existence of a curlew than these shooters? Is there any threat greater if the bird should exist?

What can you do? Send a donation to BirdLife International for their continuing work in Barbados. They have made significant progress, including the recent establishment of Barbados’ first non-shooting refuge at Woodbourne. They need your help. The only other publicly accessible wetland on the island, the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary, remains closed due to governmental indifference. With additional funding BirdLife will be in a position to acquire additional shooting swamps and convert them to conservation and to birding.

In Guadeloupe and Martinique international pressure may be all that can bring the indiscriminate shooting to a halt. Pressure cannot be limited to civil discourse and diplomatic letters. Both islands are part of the Republic of France, and therefore members of the European Union (Machi and Goshen were shot, in effect, in a suburb of Paris). RSPB, VBN, and LPO have been working with the European Commission for extension of the Birds and Habitats Directives to the overseas entities, with some success.The EU this year launched a pilot fund – the BEST fund – specifically for the overseas entities. What is needed is for the Birds and Habitats Directives to apply in the European territories in the Caribbean, and for birds at risk (such as chittering curlew and American golden-plover) and IBAs to be protected through the Directives. Support for continued efforts in Guadeloupe and Martinique should be directed to AMAZONA-Guadeloupe .


Goshens transmitter 600

Image 4 – Goshen's Transmitter Found Port Saint Louis, Guadeloupe

Finally, I urge you to support the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB). The SCSCB is comprised of representatives from throughout the Caribbean, from Bermuda to Trinidad and Tobago. The SCSCB is working with a variety of agencies and organizations to address the issue of shorebird shooting. I am working with the group to establish the Caribbean Birding Trail, a way of connecting local people to their personal heritage and sense of place.

We must face the fact that this problem arose principally from the cupidity and carelessness of our ancestors…W.E.B. Du Bois 

We were all absent from the slaughter in the late 1800s in the American Great Plains, We can do nothing to reclaim that time. But we can act on threats that we see today. 

To get a sense of what actually happens in the Caribbean shooting swamps, please watch the video linked here. Yes, it is graphic, but then so is life.