The curlews are a group of nine species of birds in the genus Numenius, characterised by their long, slender, downcurved bills and mottled brown plumage. The English name is imitative of the Eurasian curlew's call, but may have been influenced by the Old French corliu, "messenger", from courir , "to run". It was first recorded in 1377 in Langland's Piers Plowman "Fissch to lyue in þe flode..Þe corlue by kynde of þe eyre". In Europe "curlew" usually refers to one species, the Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata).
Curlews enjoy a worldwide distribution. Most species show strong migratory habits and consequently one or more species can be encountered at different times of the year in Europe, Ireland, Britain, Iberia, Iceland, Africa, Southeast Asia, Siberia, North America, South America and Australasia. The distribution of curlews has altered considerably in the past hundred years as a result of changing agricultural practices. Reclamation and drainage of marshy fields and moorland, and afforestation of the latter, have led to local decreases, while conversion of forest to grassland in some parts of Scandinavia has led to increases there. There are now only a small number of curlews in Ireland and Britain raising concerns that the bird will go extinct in those countries.
The stone-curlews are not true curlews (family Scolopacidae) but members of the family Burhinidae, which is in the same order Charadriiformes, but only distantly related within that.