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Fragile Legacy

Endangered, Threatened & Rare Animals of South Dakota

Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis)

JPG--eskimo curlew photo species distribution map
Status: Federal Endangered, State Endangered

Description: The Eskimo curlew is a small (12 inches, 30.5 cm) shorebird with a slightly decurved bill and short bluish-gray legs. Its plumage is a rich cinnamon color on the upper back and under the wings. It has dark brown head stripes with an indistinct central crown stripe. Rows of Y-shaped markings are found on the breast and flanks. This curlew closely resembles its slightly larger relative, the whimbrel.

Habitat and Habits: The Eskimo curlew was called a "prairie pigeon" in Illinois and Nebraska, reflecting its migratory presence in plowed fields, grasslands, pastures and, less frequently, in marshes and mudflats. It feeds on berries, crickets, grasshoppers and their eggs, spiders, moths, ants, grubs and cutworms.

Distribution: The Eskimo curlew breeds in the Northwest Territories, Canada, and in Alaska, migrating during the fall through Canada and the Great Plains to overwinter in South America. The main wintering range is in Uruguay and the southern half of Argentina and Chile. Spring migration begins in March with Eskimo curlew potentially occurring in wet meadows from late March to mid-May in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Conservation Measures: Federally listed in 1967, the Eskimo curlew is nearly extinct, although historical reports contained accounts of skies filled with Eskimo curlew as they migrated through the prairie states and provinces of North America. The last confirmed sighting was in Nebraska in 1987. The reasons for its decline are unclear, although spring and fall hunting along migration routes were certainly factors. In the 1700s and 1800s, Eskimo curlew were sent as gifts in sealed tins and sold in markets in many North American cities.

Drastic habitat loss has occurred both on migratory routes and on wintering grounds. Eskimo curlew recovery efforts include continued searching for populations and a proposal to rear this species in captivity in order to reintroduce it into potential breeding areas.

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