by Ben Long

The Long-billed Curlew is North America’s largest shorebird. It just happens to spend a good part of its life hundreds of miles from the nearest seashore, here in Montana. The curlew is one of the most striking species of birds in the Treasure State. It stands out both when you see it and you hear it.

Curlews drop from the summer sky like they are skydivers, calling out their own names: cuuuurrlllewwww! They have long legs like many shorebirds, but their long, downwardly curving bill is in a class of its own. It’s almost comically long. That extra-long bill is well suited for the marshes of California or coast of Mexico, where they spend most of their lives. They use that bill to probe the mudflats and sand of estuaries and bays, foraging for crabs, shrimp and other creatures. Every year, the birds leave the coasts and move inland. They are a little like salmon that way, leaving salt water to travel hundreds of miles inland to spawn.

When curlews arrive in Montana, they are looking for grasslands – a quarter section or so they can call their own. They prefer grasslands where bison or cattle have cropped the grass a bit, so they can see over it, but not grazed to bare dirt or with so many cattle their nests will be trampled. Curlews tend to arrive in Montana in May. Once here, they turn their bills to prey like beetles or young meadow mice. In early summer, curlews scratch a small nest in the grasslands, depending on their natural mottled pattern as camouflage. The female lays eggs and the male and female take turns incubating them.

After the eggs hatch, the mother curlew takes flight and returns to the coast, perhaps tired of the local diet and hungry for seafood. The father takes over the nest for another month, until the chicks fledge and are ready to fend for themselves. Then they all leave for the coast, too. Nary a curlew will be left in Montana by August.

In Montana, one will find curlews where one finds ample grasslands. While curlews are most abundant on the eastern side of Montana, they occur in the valley grasslands on the west side as well. Decades ago, there was adequate native grasslands to support nesting curlews in the Flathead Valley, however that has largely been lost to farming and urban development. Curlew may still mate at protected grasslands in the Tobacco Valley, such as the Dancing Prairie Preserve near Eureka. There are also nesting curlews in the Mission Valley, where pasture and grassland remain substantially intact.

While Long-billed Curlews are not on the endangered species list, biologists are concerned for their future. Globally, native grasslands are one of the most endangered terrestrial ecosystems. Happily, curlew can co-exist with traditional Montana cattle ranching. Sod busting, however, tends to be trouble for curlews and urban sprawl treats them worst of all. Long-billed Curlews were commonly found on the Atlantic Coast, but those populations have been lost as habitat was destroyed.

As we consider the future of the Long-billed Curlew we would be wise to remember the fate of its cousin, the Eskimo Curlew. Eskimo Curlews were a bit smaller, nested in the far North and wintered in the Continental United States. Eskimo Curlews were called “dumpling birds” because they were fat and tasty. Like the Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlews once were so abundant they migrated in flocks that blackened out the sun. But like the passenger pigeon, Eskimo Curlew was in high demand and market hunters killed them by the hundreds of thousands. Americans assumed them to be so abundant as to be limitless. And as with the Passenger Pigeon, we learned otherwise only when it was too late; both species had gone extinct.

The key to conserving the Longbilled Curlew here in Montana is con- serving the grasslands that it – and a host of other species – depends upon.