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Eskimo Curlew

A vanishing species?


Birds tell us much about the stewardship of man on this planet. Sometimes indications of a problem aren't recognized in time and public concern is too late in developing. We can learn, for example, from the demise of the Passenger Pigeon. Three excellent monographs deal with its extirpation: W. B. Mershon's The Passenger Pigeon in 1907, Margaret H. Mitchell's The Passenger Pigeon in Ontario in 1935, and A. W. Schorger's The Passenger Pigeon, its Natural History and Extinction in 1955 and 1973. But these works came too late.

The failure of eastern Bald Eagles to produce young was part of the motivation for Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring in 1962. The Peregrine Falcon and Osprey, other species at the top of the food chain, collecting large burdens of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT, were also on the verge of extirpation throughout the eastern half of North America (Peregrine Falcon Populations, their Biology and Decline, edited by Joseph J. Hickey, appeared in print in 1969, reporting the results of a 1965 conference). As a result of widespread concern, DDT was banned, and all three species are doing better, aided by management and reintroduction programs.

Whooping Crane numbers reached a frightening low of only 19 wild birds in 1946. A photo of these magnificent birds in flight by Saskatchewan's Fred Lahrman was Canada's "News Photo of the Year" in 1953. The nesting grounds of the few remaining birds were located in 1954. In response to much publicity, the railway to Pine Point was re-routed at considerable expense, to avoid disturbing the breeding cranes. Public interest has been steadily supportive and as a result these birds are closely monitored, with extensive research and management programs. The Whooping Crane now has an excellent chance of avoiding the fate of the Passenger Pigeon.

Why, then, has the Eskimo Curlew received so little attention, apart from Ontario writer Fred Bodsworth's best-selling novel, The Last of the Curlews, published in 1954? Why has there been no monograph to detail the history of this species?

Once one of the most numerous birds in North America, the Eskimo Curlew has hovered at the very brink of extinction ever since its drastic decline about 100 years ago. Although its extinction has been treated as a foregone conclusion, this hasn't happened yet. In striking contrast to the larger, more easily identified species mentioned above, virtually no money has been spent to study or protect this bird. Apart from Bodsworth's book and one or two sightings a year by keen birders, recorded in specialized journals of relatively small circulation, little has been said about it or done on its behalf. No habitat change or pesticide threat has been identified. The Eskimo Curlew has failed to excite the interest of the general public.

The present monograph is an important contribution, since it adds another landmark case history to the annals of species near extinction. We must learn from our mistakes if we are to avoid perpetuating them, yet it is difficult to determine what lesson is to be learned until we have collected and attempted to understand the relevant facts. Gollop and his collaborators, Tom Barry and Eve Iversen, deserve great credit for their thorough collation of the available observations, from past through present, and their interpretations of this information. Such a complete synthesis has never before been attempted.

The Canadian Wildlife Service has supported this endeavor in two important ways: by the contributions of Bernie Gollop and Tom Barry, two of its research scientists, and by financial support of this publication. Who knows? Perhaps it is still not too late to rescue the Eskimo Curlew from oblivion!

C. Stuart Houston
863 University Drive
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N OJ8

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