Sicklebill, Big curlew or Hen curlew
This sandpiper with an incredibly long bill is the largest shorebird of the United States; but usually, it is seen some distance from the shore. This bird has to cope with its 8-inch down-curved bill when feeding, drinking, preening, scratching, and flying. It fascinating to watch the curlew as it walks quickly along feeding, showing amazing dexterity while it manipulates its long bill. Unfortunately, this species is threatened with extinction because of the loss of prairie breeding habitats.
Long-billed curlews occur from southwest Canada to the west half of the US. They winter in the States in the south and Guatemala. During the summer they can also be found on the Texas Gulf Coast. During the breeding season these birds prefer prairies or pastures with short grass. After breeding, they head to seashores, lakes, rivers, salt marches or mudflats.
Long-billed curlews are solitary and diurnal birds. During the breeding season they are often seen foraging for food in pairs, in groups or on their own. Around the nest, however, they are highly territorial and will exhibit a range of threat displays. To fly, these birds jump into the air for take-off and then alternate flapping with gliding. The call they make is a loud “curlee”. They are social birds when migrating and a flock will fly in a “V” shaped formation as geese do.
Long-billed curlews are mainly carnivorous. When in grasslands, this bird eats grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. It also eats small amphibians. In its winter habitat, small crustaceans, mollusks, seeds and berries form its diet.
Long-billed curlews are monogamous, breeding with the same mate year after year. The male displays with an undulating flight, calling to the female. The mating season runs from mid-April until September. Nests are depressions on the ground, usually lined with grass, in open flat areas where there are clumps of grass. They are often built near bushes or cow patties to help conceal them from predators. Usually 4 pear-shaped greenish or buff-colored eggs with brown spots are laid, which are incubated by both parents for 27 to 30 days. The parents both defend the nest; usually the female incubates during the day, with the male taking his turn at night. Once the eggs hatch, the mother will stay for about two weeks with the chicks before leaving the male to take care of them. He will stay with them and will feed them mostly insects and berries for 6 weeks until they fledge. After three to four years, reproductive maturity is reached.
Numbers were much higher in the 19th century, but fell due to hunting and the conversion to agriculture and housing of this species’ grassland breeding habitat. This is thought to be why now in winter Long-billed curlews are scarce along the Atlantic coast. Habitat loss is the major continuing threat, due to both development and climate change’s projected effects. Pesticide spraying may also harm curlews by reducing their food supply, particularly of grasshoppers.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Long-billed curlew population is 50,000-123,000 individuals. According to the All About Birds resource, a 2012 study estimated a North American population of the species at about 140,000 birds. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC), but its numbers today are decreasing.