The curlew and its distinctive call has always had special fascination for me. It was one of the sounds that I remember from a very early age, first hearing the wonderful plaintive call echoing around the Welsh hills, then seeing them flying between nearby feeding grounds. These were the European Curlew Numenius arquata the largest of European wading birds. However since reading “The Last of the Curlews” by Fred Bodsworth (London 1964) which is a sad and moving tale of the inevitable extinction of the Eskimo Curlew, I have regularly "Googled" for possible news of the species.
In the nineteenth century this Curlew was a common sight on migration between its summer breeding grounds in the tundra of Canada’s North West Territories and the pampas of Argentina. Between 1870 and 1890, unrestricted hunting rapidly reduced populations of these curlew. Considered very good to eat, the birds were killed by thousands of market hunters, just as the Passenger Pigeon had been years earlier. The curlew's lack of fear and habit of traveling in large flocks made it an easy target. Since reading their story and suspected demise, I have kept an eye open for news of the species, in the forlorn hope that perhaps a few might still survive; it seems not, but I found this from The Guardian newspaper from 2005:
In 1962 another rapidly declining North American species, the Eskimo curlew, was seen in Texas. In the four decades since, several other sightings have been claimed, but none has totally convinced the authorities whose job it is to pass judgment on records of rare birds.
With any species like these, on the brink of annihilation, there is a point at which we must finally admit that it has become extinct. Yet, it is human nature to hang on to the slim hope that a lost population may somehow, somewhere, survive.
So perhaps even now a flock of Eskimo curlews is migrating unseen across the crowded North American airspace, on the epic journey from their South American winter quarters to breed in the wilds of Alaska. With the resurrection of the ivory-billed woodpecker, this may not be quite as farfetched as it seems.
A close relative of the Eskimo curlew is now considered to be Europe's rarest bird. Once common, the slender-billed curlew underwent a rapid decline during the 20th century, and by the 1990s could only reliably be seen at a single site in northern Morocco. Gradually numbers there fell, until finally none remained.
But in May 1998, in a remarkable turn of events, a small curlew resembling this species was found at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, England. Though photographed and even captured briefly on video, the identification was doubted by some sceptics, who simply could not believe that such a rare bird could turn up in Britain.
Away from the well-watched regions of Europe and North America, it is much more likely that birds long considered extinct may yet be rediscovered. The last known Spix's macaw disappeared from its native forest in north-eastern Brazil some time towards the end of the last millennium.
But some species simply refuse to lie down and die. BirdLife recently revealed a possible sighting of the legendary pink-headed duck, the first since before the Second World War, in the remote region of northern Burma. Frustratingly, the bird was seen for just three minutes; and none of the observers had a camera to hand — making it yet another in the long line of "ones that got away." Which brings us to the $64,000 question. Is there any chance — however remote — that any of the three best known extinct birds in history could still be alive, awaiting rediscovery? In ascending order of notoriety, they are the passenger pigeon, whose flocks once darkened the skies over North America; the great auk, the last British example of which was killed by islanders who thought it was a witch; and finally the dodo, which fell victim to hungry sailors and the even hungrier dogs, cats and rats they brought with them.
Were any of these birds to be found again, it would be front-page news all over the world. Sadly, there is about as much chance of this happening as of Elvis being found alive. But then again, we can always dream ...
- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005