Identification of Curlews

If you see a large shorebird with a surprisingly long, downwardly curved bill, it is almost certainly a curlew, a group of birds distinguished by their bills. Male and female curlews are similar in size, but the female’s bill is longer. Ornithologists debate whether the genus Numenius comprises eight or nine species. All curlews breed in the northern hemisphere and are highly migratory. For a long time they were considered separate species, then grouped together as one, and now some ornithologists consider them, once again, as two species.

The Whimbrel – Eurasian (Numenius phaeopus) or Hudson’s (Numenius hudsonicus) – is a shorebird that temperate birders are likely to see in coastal areas during migration. It is a medium-sized curlew and its bill measures 70-103 mm (2.8 to 4 inches). Two curlew species, the Eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis) and the Slender-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris), are critically endangered or probably extinct.

The Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) is the largest shorebird in Eurasia, with a bill length of 115 to 145 mm (4.5 to 5.7 inches). The Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) is the largest North American shorebird, with a bill length similar to its Eurasian cousin. The female Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), however, wins the prize for the shorebird with the longest and thickest bill, at about 184 mm (7.3 inches).

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