The Last of the Curlews
There are no people in this remarkable story only birds. Here is the haunting tale of an Eskimo curlew, his breed faced with extinction, roaming the flyways of the world in search of an impossible love
A MACLEAN'S NOVELETTE
BY JUNE THE ARCTIC NIGHT has dwindled to a brief interval of grey dusk and throughout the long days mosquitoes swarm up like clouds of smoke from the potholes of the thawing tundra. It was then that the Eskimos once waited for the soft, tremulous, far-carrying chatter of the Eskimo curlew flocks and the promise of tender flesh that chatter brought to the Arctic land. But the great flocks no longer come. Even the memory of them is gone and only the legends remain. For the Eskimo curlew, originally one of the continent’s most abundant game birds, flew a gantlet of shot each spring ami fall, and, flying it, learned too slowly the fear of the hunter’s gun that was the essential of survival. Now the species lingers on precariously at extinction s lip.
The odd survivor still flies the long and perilous migration from the wintering grounds of Argentine’s Patagonia, to seek a mate of its kind on the sodden tundra plains which slope to the Arctic sea. But the Arctic is vast. Usually they seek in vain amid its barren reaches of rock and stagnant pools. The last of a dying race, they now fly alone.
AS THE Arctic half-night dissolved suddenly in the pink and then the glaring yellow of the onrushing June day, the Eskimo curlew recognized at last the familiar S-twist of the ice-hemmed river half a mile below. In the five hundred miles of flat and featureless tundra he had flown over that night, there had been many rivers with many twists identical to this one, yet the curlew knew that now he was home. He was tired. The brown barbs of his wing feathers were frayed and ragged from the migration flight that had started in easv stages below the tropics and had ended nowin a frantic, nonstop dash across the treeless barren grounds as the full frenzy of the mating madness gripped him. The curlew set his wings and CONTINUED ON NEXT TWO PAGES
THE LAST OF THE CURLEWS continue
dropped in a long glide that brought him to earth on the oozy shore of a snow-water puddle well back from the river bank.
Here for millenniums the Eskimo curlew males had come with the Junetime spring and waited feverishly for the females to come seeking their mates oi the year. As they waited, each male vented the febrile passion of the breeding time by lighting savagely with neighboring males in defense of the territorv he had chosen. In the ecstasy of homecoming, the curlew now hardly remembered that for three summers past he had been mysteriously alone and the mating fire within him had burned itself out unquenched each time as the lonely weeks passed and, inexplicably, no female had come.
The curlew’s instinct-dominated brain didn’t know or didn’t ask why.
He had been fixing ten hours without stop but now his body craved food more than rest, for the rapid heartbeat and metabolism that had kept 1ns powerful wing muscles Hexing rhythmically hour after hour had taken a heavy toll ot body fuel. He began probing into the mud with Ins long bill. It was a st range bill, curiously adapted for this manner ot feeding, two-and-a-half inches long, strikingly down-curved, almost sicklelike. At each probe the curlew felt tor the softbodied larvae ot water insects and crustaceans. Í he bil jabbed in and out of the brown ooze with a smooth, rapic sewing-machine action.
There were still dirty grey snowdrifts m the tundra hollows but the sun was hot and the flat Arctic world already teemed with life. Feeding was good, and the curlew fed without stopping for over an hour. I hen he dozed fitfully in a half-sleep, standing on one leg, the other leg folded up close to his belly, his neck twisted so that the bill was tucked deeply into the feathers of his back. His body processes were rapid and in half an hou the energv loss of Ins ten-hour flight is îeplenished. FI was fully rested.
The Arctic summer would be short and there would b much to do when the female came. I he curlew Hew to rocky ridge that rose about three feet above the surroundin tundra, alighted and looked about him. It was a harsh, bar land to have flown nine thousand miles to reach. Above a else it was an empty land. The trees which survived the gales and cold of the long winters were creeping deformities of birch and willow which, alter decades ot snail-paced growth, had struggled no more than a foot or two high. The timber line where the trees of the sub-Arctic spruce forests petered out and the tundra Barren Grounds began was five hundred miles south. It was mostly a flat and undramed land laced with muskeg ponds so close packed that now, with the spring, it was half hidden by water. The low gravel humps and rock ridges which kept the potholes of water from merging into a vast, shallow sea were covered with dense mats of grey reindeer moss and lichen, now rapidly turning to green. A few inches below lav frost as rigid as battleship steel, the land s foundation that never melted.
'The curlew took off. climbed slowly, and methodically circled and re-circled the two-acre patchwork of water and moss that he intended to claim as his exclusive territory. Occasionally, sailing slowly on set, motionless wings, he would utter the soft, rolling whistle of his mating song. There was nothing of joy in the song. It was a war cry, a warning to all who could hear that the territor)' had an owner now, an owner flushed with the heat of the mating time who would defend it unflinchingly for the female that would come.
i he curlew knew every rock, gravel bar, puddle and bush of his territor)', despite the fact that in its harsh emptiness there wasn’t a thing that stood out sufficienti)' to be called a landmark. The territory’s western and northern boundaries were t he top of the river’s S-twist which the curlew had spotted from the air. There was nothing ol prominence to mark the other boundaries, only a few scattered granite boulders which sparkled with specks of pyrite and mica, a half-dozen birch and willow shrubs and a lew twisting necks ot brown water. But the curlew knew within a tew feet where his territor) ended. ell in toward the centre was a low ridge ot cobblestone so well drained and dry that, in the ten thousand years since the ice-age glaciers had passed, the mosses and lichens had never been able to establish themselves. At the toot of this parched stony bar where drainage water from above collected, a shallow film ot dank mud lay across the cobbles and the moss and lichen mat Continued on page 57 was thick and luxuriant. Here the female would select her nesting site. In t he top of a moss hummock she would fashion out a shallow, saucerlike depression, line it haphazardly with a few crisp leaves and grasses and lay her four olive-brown eggs.
The last of the Curlews
Continued from page 25
The curlew circled higher, his mating song becoming sharper and more frequent. Suddenly the phrases of the song were tumbled together into a loud, excited, whistling rattle. Far upriver, a brown speck against the mottled grey and blue sky, another bird was winging northward, and the curlew had recognized it already as another curlew.
He waited, flying in tightening circles and calling excitedly as the other bird came nearer. The female was coming. The three empty summers that the male had waited vainly and alone were a vague, tormenting memory, now almost lost in a brain so keenly keyed to instinctive responses that there was little capacity for conscious thought or memory. Instinct took full control now as the curlew spiraled high into the air in his courtship flight, his wings fluttering mothlike instead of sweeping the air with the deep strokes of normal flight. At the zenith of the spiral his wings closed and the bird plunged earthward in a whistling dive, leveled off a few feet above the tundra and spiraled upward again.
'The other bird changed flight direet ion and came swiftly toward him. But instinctively obeying the territorial law that all birds recognize, she came to earth and perched on a moss-crowned boulder well outside the male’s territory.
The male was seething now with passion and excitement. He performed several more courtship flights in rapid succession, spiraling noisily upward each time, then plunging earthward in a dive that barely missed the ground. For several minutes the female nonchalantly preened her wing feathers, oblivious to the love display. Then she moved into the mating territory, close to where the male was performing.
The male zoomed up in a final nuptial flight, then dropped like a falling meteorite to a spot about six feet from where the female waited. He stood for a moment, feathers fluffed out and neck outstretched, then walked stiff-legged toward her.
When still a yard away, the male abruptly stopped. The whispering courtship twitter t hat had been coming from deep in his throat suddenly silenced, and a quick series of alarm notes came instead. The female’s be-
havior also suddenly changed. No longer meekly submissive, she was on her feet and stepping quickly away.
The male lowered his head like a fighting cock and dashed at the female. She dodged sideways, and took wing. The male flew in pursuit, calling noisily | and striking repeatedly at her retreating back.
The curlew’s mating passion had suddenly turned into an aggressive call to battle. The female was a trespasser on his territory, not a prospective mate, for at close range he had recognized the darker plumage and eccentric posture of a species other than his own. The | other bird was a female of the closely related Hudsonian species, but the Eskimo curlew knew only, through the instinctive intuition set up by nature to prevent infertile matings between different species, that this bird was not the mate he awaited.
He chased her a quarter of a mile with a fury as passionate as his love had been a few seconds before. Then he returned to the territory and resumed the wait for the female of his own kind that must soon come.
Two curlew species, the longest legged and longest billed of the big shorebird family of snipes, sandpipers and plovers to which they belong, nest on the Arctic tundra—the Eskimo curlew and the commoner and slightly larger Hudsonian. Though distinct species, they are almost indistinguishable in appearance.
The Arctic day was long, and despite the tundra gales which whistled endlessly across the unobstructed land the day was hot and humid. The curlew alternately probed the mud flats for food and patrolled his territory. At last the sun dipped low, barely passing from view, and the curlew’s first Arctic night dropped like a grey mist around him.
The curlew was drawn by an instinctive urge he felt but didn’t understand to the dry ridge of cobblestone with f lu; thick mat of reindeer moss at its base where the nest would be. In his fifth summer now, he had never seen a nest or even a female of his kind except the nest and mother he had briefly known in his own nestling stage, yet the know-how of courtship and nesting was there, unlearned, like a carry-over from another life he had lived. And he dozed now on one leg, bill tucked under tin; feathers of his back, beside the gravel bar which awaited the nest that the bird’s instinct said there had to be.
Tomorrow or the next day the female would come, for the brief annual cycle of life in the Arctic left time for no delays.
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Smithsonian Institution, Washington, December 15, 1015. To the Congress of the United States: In accordance with section 5503 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, I have the honor, in behalf of the Board of Regents, to submit to Congress the annual report of the operations, expenditures, and condition of the Smithsonian Institution for the year ending June 30, 1015. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, Charles D. Walcott, Secretary . . . The object of the General Appendix to the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution is to furnish brief accounts of scientific discovery in particular directions; reports of investigations made by collaborators of the Institution . . .
The Kskimo Curlew and Its Disappearance (Reprinted in this annual report after revision by the author, Myron II. Swenk, from the Proceedings of the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Keb. 27, 1915).
It is now the consensus of opinion of all informed ornithologists that the Kskimo curlew (Numenius borealis) is at the verge of extinction, and by many the belief is entertained that the few scattered birds which may still exist will never enable the species to recoup its numbers, but that it is even now practically a bird of the past. And, judging from all analogous cases, it must be confessed that this hopeless belief would seem to be justified, and the history of the Kskimo curlew, like that of the passenger pigeon, may simply he another of those ornithological tragedies en-
acted during the last half of the nineteenth century, when because of a wholly unreasonable and uncontrolled slaughter of our North American bird life several species passed from an abundance manifested by flocks of enormous size to a state of practical or complete annihilation . . .
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THF) HOT DAYS and chilling nights raced by, the snowdrifts disappeared even from the shaded hollows, the austere browns and greys of the tundra became a flaming carpet of pink and yellow blooms, and the female curlew never came. Other shore birds came in their hundreds, fought for their territories, mated, nested and prepared to bring forth the new cycle of life they had flown six or eight thousand miles to create. The male curlew fought insanely with every plover and sandpiper that crossed his territory boundary until the outer perimeters were flecked with the brown feathers of trespassers that had retreated too slowly before the curlew’s onslaughts. The mating hormones poured out by his glands could only dam up within him like an explosive c harge.
The nights grew darker and longer. The tiny, brilliant flowers of the tundra dried into wisps of silk-plumed seed. The Arctic summer was waning.
Within the curlew the annual rhythm of glandular activity had passed its peak and begun to ebb, and its product, the belligerent drive of the mating time, was dying. A new urge was replacing it. Where before, defense of the territory was an overriding demand that took priority over even t he search for food, the curlew was now feeling the* first stirrings of a restless call to move. No female had come. The territory was losing its meaning. Once he flew far down river and was gone a couple of hours, the first time he had left the territory since arriving almost two months before.
Around him the young shore birds of the year were maturing rapidly and their parents were abandoning them to fend for themselves. The disassociation between parents and young was abrupt and complete, the parents forming their own flocks, the young birds t heirs.
It was late July. The tundra potholes and their muddy edges were teeming with water insects and crustaceans on which the shore birds fed. Food was at its peak of abundance and winter was still a couple of months away, hut the Arctic had served its purpose and now the distant sout hland was calling the shore birds flocks, many weeks before there was any real need for them to leave. The curlew, who had fought savagely all summer to be alone, now felt a pressing desire for companionship.
There was no reasoning or intelligence involved. The curlew was merely responding in the ages-old pattern of
his race to the changing cycle of physiological controls within him. The curlew didn’t know that winter was coming again to the Arctic and that insect eaters must starve if they remained. He knew only that once again an irresistible inner force was pressing him to move.
But somewhere in his tiny, rudimentary brain the simple beginnings of a reasoning process were starting. Why was he always alone? When the rabid fire of the mating time burned fiercely in every cell, where were the females of his species which the curlew’s instinct promised springtime after springtime? And now with the time for the flocking come, why in t he myriads of shore birds and other curlews were there none of the smaller and lighter-brown curlews he could recognize as his own kind?
A few days later the lure of the territory disappeared entirely and the curlew rose high and flew southward for a couple of hours without alighting. He came down finally to feed on a small mud flat where a river emptied into a large lake. The tundra was now disI gorging its summer population of shore birds and flock after flock of southwardmoving sandpipers passed by. Yet in a land pulsing with the wingbeats of migrating shore birds, the curlew was alone.
By afternoon the mud flat was dotted with the darting forms of shore birds that had stopped to feed. Most of them kept together in flocks of their own species. At dusk the flocks ceased feeding and took off, one by one, until only the curlew remained, the birds of each flock whistling sibilantly to each other to retain formation in the falling dark; ness. They circled high until a half mile ; or so above the tundra, then leveled off : and headed southward. It was usual for the shore birds to migrate principally at night, for their digestion and energy consumption were rapid and the daylight was required for feeding. The high level of energy which migration demanded could be maintained only by timing the flights so that they ended with the dawn when feeding could be at once resumed.
Far above him, the curlew could hear the faint, lisping notes of the Arctic migrants pouring south to a warmer land. Needles of ice began forming at the shallow edges of the mud flat puddles. The bird’s instinct rebelled at the idea of flying alone, yet when he called shrilly into the cold night there was no answer, and the time had come when he had to move.
He turned into the breeze, held his wings extended outward and adjusted the angle leading edge up and trailing edge down— until he could feel the lifting pressure of the wind beneath them. Of all the shore birds’ wings, the Eskimo curlew’s —long, narrow and grace, fully pointed—were best adapted for I easy, high-speed flight. Even standing motionless with wings extended in the faint, night breeze, the bird was weightless and almost air-borne. He pushed off gently with his legs, took a few rapid : wingbeats with the flight feathers twisted so that they bit solidly into the j air, and rose effortlessly. He climbed i sharply for more than a minute until ' the tundra almost vanished in the grey dark below, then he leveled off and picked up speed with a slower, easier wingbeat. The air rushed past him, pressing his body feathers tightly : against the skin. The migration had begun. Even the curlew’s simple brain i sensed vaguely that the unmarked flyway ahead reaching down the length of two continents was a long, grim gantlet of storm, foe and death.
Yet even now, before the austere flatlands of the Arctic had totally disappeared in the horizon mists behind him, the curlew was feeling the first faint stirrings of another year’s mating call which would drive him back to await the female when springtime greened the Arctic lichens again.
The curlew’s wings beat with a strong, rapid, unchanging rhythm hour after hour. The strokes were deep, smooth and effortless, the wings sweeping low beneath his belly at every downstroke and lifting high over the back with each return. He completed three or four wingbeats a second to give him a flight speed of fifty miles an hour.
Occasionally one of the curlew’s wings would bite into the harder, spiraling air of a vortex left by the wingtips of a migrating shore bird ahead of him, for even the passage of another bird left a trail in the air that the curlew’s delicately sensitized wings could detect. Usually this alteration in the air pattern was the curlew’s first warning that he was overtaking a flock of birds ahead. When he found one of these vortexes, the curlew took advantage of it and followed it in with one wing riding the updraft edge of the horizontal [ column of spiraling air. In this way he found a degree of lift ready made for j him and his own wings could work a little easier. But no other shore bird except the golden plover flew as fast as the curlew did, and each time he slowly overtook the bird producing the vortex ahead. First he would hear the faint twitter of a flock’s flight notes, the vortex would grow stronger, then the birds would appear as blurred figures against the grey sky in front. I he curlew would fly with them for a time, but his greater speed would gradually drive him ahead. Then once more he would he flving alone. Of the thirty-odd shore birds which fly south out of the Canadian Arctic every fall, only the golden plover is suited as a migration companion for t he Eskimo curlew. Their flight speeds and food preferences are similar, but there is another more important reason. With their tireless endurance as flyers, the golden plover and Eskimo curlew spurn the easy land route down the continent that all other migrating birds follow. Instead they work eastward to the rocky coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, then strike out straight south over the Atlantic for a gruelling, nonstop flight of 2,500 or more miles which doesn’t bring them to land again until they reach the northern shores of South America forty-eight hours later. Of all the Arct ic’s strongwinged shore birds and waterfowl, only the Eskimo curlew and golden plover possess the speed and power of flight to breast or escape the mid-ocean storms encountered on this long oversea short cut south. The route enables them to take advantage of the rich crowberry crop that purples the hillsides and pla-
This happened several times during the night, for the air layers close to the ¡ cooling tundra were turbulent and most of the shore birds were flying at i he same level just above the turbulence. Toward morning the curlew encountered another vortex trail and adjusted his wingbeat to the change in lift. He followed it for a long time and the vortex remained firm but grew no stronger. This time the curlew wasn’t overtaking the flock ahead. Ducks and geese were not yet migrating, only two birds could be flying out of the Arctic now at a speed that the Eskimo curlew wouldn’t rapidly overhaul. They had to be either golden plover or his own species, Eskimo curlew.
The curlew’s tireless wings beat faster and the airflow pressed laird against his streamlined body. The wingtip vortex eddying back from the unseen flyers ahead strengthened, and it was a firmer, rougher vortex than any the curlew had encountered earlier in the night. It grew stronger almost imperceptibly, and the curlew’s eagerness grew with it. A tenuous hope,, j part instinctive reaction and part a shadowy form of reasoning, formed nebulously in the curlew’s brain. Was this the end of his lifelong quest for companions of his own kind 1 he curlew’s wingbeat speeded until th(' powerful sinews of his breast muscles, gram for gram among the strongest of animal tissue on earth, pained with the strain.
The other birds were very close before their figures emerged, faintly at first, and then more sharply, out of the darkness ahead. For a minute or more the curlew could detect only t he vague, wavering lines of the flock’s formation, then slowly the dark lines separated into individual birds. Only the fast, strong flyers like geese, curlew and golden plover flew in single column, diagonally trailing lines or Vs that permitted each bird to benefit from a wingtip vortex of the bird ahead yet (‘scape the air turbulence directly behind it. A restive excitement seized him and the curlew pushed on harder.
The gap closed rapidly and the birds ahead assumed sharper form. They were small, much smaller than the curlew. The curlew called out softly, (’«olden plovers answered.
It was a large group of forty or fifty, and the curlew moved in to a rearguard spot. He slackened flight speed and announced his presence with a rapid, twittering series of notes. The plovers answered again, the whole flock chattering sharply in unison. The curlew’s flocking urge was satisfied. There was a vague, remote feeling of lonelinesadeep within him still, but the curlew was no longer alone.
teaus of the Labrador Peninsula each fall, a luxuriant store of food missed by the host s of mid-continental migrants. But in spritig the plover and curlew must follow the usual migratory route up the western plains. For then the crowberries are dead and hard beneath snows of the Labrador winter which lingers for weeks after the mid - continent’s Arctic is greening wit h spring.
Toward dawn the grey monotony of tundra, dimly visible far below, began to be pierced by slender, twisting fingers of black. The birds had covered four hundred miles since nightfall and
were approaching the tree line where tundra gave way to the matted subArctic forests of spruce. The black fingers reaching into the tundra were forested river valleys where stunted spruce thickets found shelter in the hollows against winter blizzards and precariously survived. With the first, yellow-grey flush of dawn the flock dropped to a lakeshore mud flat, rested briefly, then as daylight came they began busily feeding.
’Fhe curlew with his stilt-like legs and long, down-curved bill stood out strikingly among the smaller, dark-plum-
aged, short-billed golden plovers.
They fed all day with only occasional breaks for resting. With the darkness they flew again. The flock clung together loosely as they climbed for height, then as they leveled off the birds formed smoothly into a straggling V formation which permitted the inner wing of each bird to gain support from the whirling air produced by the outer wing of the bird ahead. The curlew took the lead position at the point of the V and the plovers fell in behind with a grace and ease as though the manoeuvre had been long practiced. No conscious selection of flock leader had taken place. The bird at the point position had to work harder to create lift and forward speed out of the unbroken air barrier ahead of it, and the curlew was the strongest flyer, so the remainder of the flock formed automatically behind in a movement as involuntary and spontaneous as each bird’s breathing.
The black fingers below merged into a solid mat, and the tundra was behind. Other shore birds were flying straight south toward the western plains, but the curlew led his flock southeastward, veering toward the matted crowberry vines of Labrador.
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Proceedings of the
Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 1861
August 13th. Dr. Leidy in the Chair. Nine members present. The following papers were presented for publication: “On three new forms of Rattlesnakes,” by Robert Kennicott. “Notes on the Ornithology of Labrador,” by Elliott Coues...
The Esquimaux Curlew arrived on the Labrador coast in immense numbers, flying very swiftly in flocks of great extent, sometimes many thousands . . . The pertinacity with which they cling to certain feeding grounds, even when much molested, I saw strikingly illustrated on one occasion. The tide was rising and about to flood a muddy flat where their favorite snails were in great quantities. Although six or eight gunners were stationed on the spot, and kept up a continual round of firing upon the poor birds, they continued to fly distractedly about over our heads, notwithstanding the numbers that every moment fell . . .
By order of the Library and publishing committee, the following Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History for 1906-7 are published . . .
Paper No. 7—Birds of Labrador.
By Charles W. Townsend, M.D., and Glover M. Allen . . . Numenius borealis, Eskimo Curlew. Formerly an abundant but now a very rare autumn transient visitor in Labrador.
Packard writes of the Curlew as follows:
“We saw one flock in 1860 which may have been a mile long and nearly as broad ; there must have been in that flock four or five thousand . . .”
But we met with none during our visit to the Labrador coast in the summer of 1906. We talked with many residents and they all agreed that the Curlew suddenly fell off in numbers, so that now only two or three or none at all might be seen in a season. Capt. Parsons of the mailboat Virginia Lake said that they were very abundant up to thirty years ago. lie often shot a hundred before breakfast, often killing twenty at a single discharge. Fishermen killed them by the thousands . . . They kept loaded guns at their fish stages and shot into the flying masses, often bringing down twenty or twenty-five at a discharge.
The natives of Labrador did not realize that there was any diminution in their numbers until about 1890. After 1892, but a small remnant of this formerly abundant bird has visited Labrador’s shores ... It is apparent that they are now a vanishing race—on the wav to extinction.
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NIGHTS OK ENDLESS FLYING and days of feeding at flu* edges of stagnant muskeg ponds followed monotonously, and they reached each dawn with hardening breast muscles that felt no fatigue. The curlew led them straight eastward now over the ancient eroded mountains of Quebec toward the gnarled gneiss sea cliffs of Labrador’s Gulf of St. Lawrence.
One morning the dawn came in foggy and cold. There was a sharp salty tang in the heavy air. The dawn brightened imperceptibly into a grey, sunless day, the fog banks thinned and the curlew led his flock down to a bare, craggy coastal plateau beside the sea. Creeping, heathlike vines of the crowberry lay everywhere and in patches the fleshy, purple berries were so thick they hid the foliage. The birds commenced feeding immediately. The wind off the sea was cold and laden with fine rain. After an hour they stopped feeding and bunched together, each bird standing with its head into the gale so that the wind carried the rain back along its overlapping feathers and ofl its tail.
For two weeks now there would be nothing to do but gorge and fatten for the long, nonstop flight down the Atlantic to South America. It was midAugust and the Labrador summer was already almost gone. The nights were frosty; the days were days of interminable fog. They ate crowberries until their bills and plumage were stained purple with the juice. On the odd day when the fog lifted under a warming sun they flew to the beaches at low-tide periods to gorge on snails and shrimps.
Every day they encountered at least one other flock of golden plovers and the curlew would stop its feeding to scan the passing flocks for another curlew like himself. There were no other curlews, no other shore birds of any species except the plovers.
Relatively inactive now, they fattened quickly. Their breasts were soft and round again with the fat layers that covered the rigid muscles beneath. On days when the weather cleared and the wind was right thousands of other plovers climbed high and left the coastline on a course straight south across the Gulf of St. Lawrence toward the vast Atlantic beyond. But the curlew waited, held by a tenuous bond that his meagre brain felt but couldn’t quite identify. Vaguely he sensed that when the Eskimo curlews of the tundra came, they would have to come this way.
The restless urge to push on grew stronger and the curlew was torn between the two torturing desires to wait and to move on. 'The plovers began breaking away, joining in twos and threes with other southward flying plover flocks. The flock had dwindled to half its original size when September came and the nights grew suddenly colder. Now the fog hanks which
rolled in off the sea occasionally carried big, wet flakes of snow. The last plover flocks had gone. The curlew’s flock was alone.
Frost hardened the crowberries and with their succulent juices gone the feeding became sparser. 'The fat that the birds liad stored up as body fuel for their ocean flight was beginning to be re-absorbed before tlie flight had even begun.
Finally the curlew could restrain his migratory urge no longer. On a cold dusk after a blustery day during which the temperature liad barely risen above
the freezing point the curlew took wing and climbed into the murkyisky;
'Fhe take-off. the climb for height, the automatic V-ing with the curlew at the point were accomplished with the same casual unthinking precision as on numerous dusks before. The curlew and many of the plovers liad made t he ocean flight in previous autumns and they had a shadowy, remote memory of it. Most of them sensed obscurely that when dawn came there would be only the vacant sea below their wings, that they would fly on and on and another night and another dawn would
come and the same vacant sea would still be there. And they knew that the sea was an alien and hostile element, for they were strictly creatures of the land and of the air. During periods of unusually smooth water they might alight breifly on the ocean’s surface to snatch a few moments of rest, but they were clumsy swimmers at best, their feathers lacked oil and waterlogged quickly, and rarely did the sea provide the calm conditions that would permit even a momentary landing. Usually the long flight, once begun, bad to be completed nonstop without food for their stomachs or respite for their wings.
Behind them now the Arctic’s aurora borealis was flashing vividly above the Labrador sky line, hut when they came to earth again, with flight feathers frayed and their breast muscles numbed by fatigue, it would be in a dank jungle river-bottom of the Guianas or Venezuela. Yet there was no fear or hesitation now with the take-off, no recognition of the drama of the moment. There was only a vague relief to be off. For it was a blessing of their rudimentary brains that they couldn’t see themselves in the stark perspective of reality —minute specks of earth-bound flesh challenging an eternity of sea and sky.
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For the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men. Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Annual report of the hoard of regents for the year ending June 30, 1915. . .
In Newfoundland and on the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, for many years after the middle of the nineteenth century, the Eskimo curlews arrived in August and September in millions that darkened the sky ... In a day’s shooting by 25 or 30 men as many as 2,000 curlews would be killed for the Hudson’s Bay Co. store at Cartwright, Labrador.
At night when the birds were roosting in large masses on the high beach a man armed with a lantern to dazzle and confuse the birds could approach them in the darkness and kill them in enormous numbers by striking them down with a stick . . .
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The curlew held to a course that was almost due south. When the tumbling Labrador hills dropped from sight behind, the last orienting landmark was lost, but the curlew led the flock unerringly on. Somewhere in the cosmic interplay of forces generated by the earth’s rotation and magnetic field was a guide to direction to which hidden facets of his brain were delicately tuned. He held direction effortlessly, without conscious effort. An unthinking instinct, millenniums old, was performing subconsciously a feat beyond the ken of the highest consciousnesses in the animal world.
The night was hut yet half spent when white surf outlined the craggy coastline of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton half a mile below. In some other years the curlew had stopped here, but the season was late and there was no thought of stopping now. The flock pushed on without pause across the tip of Cape Breton to the 2,500-mile misty maw of the Atlantic beyond.
An hour later a cold front of air, moving eastward off the Canadian mainland, enveloped them in an area of turbulent air currents. The warm lower layers of air were being lifted by the heavier cold air pushing beneath. In the colder temperature of higher altitudes, the warm air’s moisture began condensing, first into misty rain and then, as its temperature dropped, it became snow.
Erratic air currents buffeted the flock and the formation broke up. The snow, light and sparse at first, became thicker. The flakes grew into large, loose, damp clusters that caked into the birds’ wing feathers and made flight difficult. The curlew led the flock upward in a steep spiraling climb. The air turbulence decreased as they climbed, but the snow clouds grew denser. The quieter air permitted them to line up in formation again, but they had to form ranks more by the feel of the wingtip air whorls than by sight, for now the snow was so thick that frequently even the bird next ahead was hidden. They stopped climbing and leveled off again.
There was no way of detecting how fast the cold front was moving eastward, but the curlew knew—partly from half-remembered experiences of previous migrations, but mostly by an instinctive intuition—that their fiftymile-an-hour flight speed would take them back through the front and keep them ahead of it, because the storm s front would be moving at a speed slower than theirs. But they would have to turn and fly with the storm, and that was eastward toward mid-Atlantic.
The curlew veered eastward and the double rank of plovers behind followed his deflecting air trail, though only the front few birds had been able to see the curlew turn. The snow clung to their wings, packed into the air slots between the flight feathers. Wings that a few minutes before had responded deftly to the gentle, rhythmic flexing of the breast muscles were now heavy and stiff. Their flight speed dropped until they were hovering almost motionless in a disorganized, bewildered cluster, almost a mile above the sea. Then the curlew led them eastward again by angling slowly downward and drawing from gravitational pull the flight speed t hat their soggy wing feathers could no longer produce unaided. Now their flight speed was normal once more, but they were sacrificing altitude rapidly to maintain it. Up from the grey void below, the sea was rising steadily toward them.
The curlew led them on a long, gradual, seaward incline, adjusting the downward flight angle to the pressure of the airflow on its sensitized wings so that normal speed was maintained with the minimum of altitude loss that would accomplish it. Occasionally the snow thinned and for brief intervals almost level flight was possible. Then it thickened again and their wings grew heavy and the curlew would have to angle sharply downward.
For a long time the blind, numbing flight continued and the curlew fought to maintain height until not only his breast muscles but every fibre of his body throbbed with agonizing fatigue. To the lisping murmur of flight notes from the plovers behind there was soon added a sibilant hissing t hat came from below. The hissing grew stronger. It was the sound of snow striking water.
Then through the white curtain the curlew could see it. Waves with silvery caps curling upward appeared first ahead of the flock, paused momentarily below as they were overtaken, then disappeared behind. The snow had cleared slightly and now the plovers became visible again strung out haphazardly to the curlew’s rear. The hindmost, weaker birds were lower, closer to the sea. They had had to sacrifice altitude faster to keep up with the stronger flyers ahead. Glutinous snow clung to their wingtips, the melting rate from body heat barely equalling the rate at which new snow accumulated.
The curlew would hold a level plane of flight for several seconds, then as forward speed decreased he would have to dip downward, gain new speed and level off again. The sea was clearly visible now, the white wave crests etched sharply against the black water. At times a higher crest leaped upward to within a few feet of the struggling birds.
A great wave appeared ahead. The curlew fought the lethargy in his wings and lifted over it painfully to drop into the trough beyond. He struggled on. The next crest was lower and the curlew mounted it with several feet to spare. Behind him, the great wave lunged into the plover flock. Three of the lower birds fought for height but
could do no more than hover helplessly. There was no cry. The wave arched upward momentarily and the birds disappeared from sight. The wave passed and the three plovers didn’t reappear.
Nature, highly selective in all things, is most selective with death. The weak neither ask nor obtain mercy.
The flock slogged on. a few feet above the sea, struggling laboriously over each crest and snatching a few niggardly seconds of partial rest in the quieter, protected air of each trough. Once a long trough lifted into a seething comber many feet higher than those
preceding and the Sp.ay of its crest lashed the curlew’s wings. The curlew had to battle a maelstrom of air currents for several seconds to keep airborne. When the wave passed two more of the plovers failed to reappear. But the spray melted much of the snow clinging to the curlew’s wingtip feathers. For a minute his unburdened wings could bite into the air with all their old power. Then the snow clogged them again. Only the knowledge that somewhere close ahead the cold front terminated kept the curlew plunging on.
The air grew warmer very gradually,
so slowly it was difficult to detect the change. But the snow altered to rain abruptly. At one wave crest there was only the swirling white wall of snow ahead, by the next crest the snow was behind and sheets of rain pelted them. The snow melted from their feathers in a few seconds and the curlew led the remnant of his flock upward in a sharp climb. The pain and fatigue drained quickly from their wings and breasts with the resumption of normal flight. The sea disappeared again in the darkness beneath them. After several minutes they broke through the rain front into a quiet, mist-roofed world beyond.
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. . .and sometimes, during northeast storms, tremendous numbers of the curlews would be carried in from the Atlantic Ocean to the beaches of New England, where at times they would land in a state of great exhaustion, and they could be chased and easily knocked down with clubs when they attempted to flv. Often they alighted on Nantucket in such numbers that the shot supply of the island would become exhausted and the slaughter would have to stop until more shot could be secured from the mainland.
The gunner’s name for them was “dough-bird,” for it was so fat when it readied us in the fall that its breast would often burst open when it fell to the ground, and the thick layer of fat was so soft that it felt like a ball of dough . . . Two Massachusetts market gunners sold S.îOO worth from one flight . . . hoys ottered the birds for sale at (> cents apiece ... ln 1XX2 two hunters on Nantucket shot X7 Eskimo curlew io one morning . . . by 1X94 there was only one dough-bird ottered for sale on the Boston market.
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The curlew knew that, they had to continue flying eastward to keep the storm from overtaking them again. But their course eventually had to he southward. To the east for four thousand miles there was only empty sea. After half an hour the curlew turned the flock southward, and they flew south unhindered for almost another half hour before the eastward-moving storm front enveloped them again. Aí the first big drops of rain, the curlew
veered sharply to the east once more and in a few minutes the flock reentered clear air.
In the three hours that remained before dawn, they repeated this many times, flying south until the rain overtook them, then veering eastward to get ahead of it again. They were on a southerly course when the yellowing dawn pierced a murky eastern sky. Daylight came swiftly, changing the black of the sea to a cold green. They flew southward for an hour, then two hours, and the cloud cover grew thinner and the day brightened and this time the storm didn’t reappear. 1 he birds had worked southward around it. The snow clouds of the night, what would be left of them, would be breaking up-now far to the north over the codfish shoals of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.
I n mid-morning the air warmed and eddying wisps of fog began rising ofl the sea. They were approaching the spot where the icy Labrador current flowing southward out of the Arctic met the tepid northward-flowing tropic waters of the Gulf Stream. Here the Gulf Stream is deflected eastward past Newfoundland into mid-Atlantic. After an hour, the pale green Arctic waters changed abruptly to a deep indigo blue with a line of demarcation as sharp as a line between water and shore. They were over the Gulf Stream, a product of the t ropics. The green of the Labrador current, last feature of the Arctic, faded behind them.
Their wings beat mechanically, without change of pace or fatigue. The air warmed constantly, for each hour put them fifty miles southward.
By evening they had crossed the eastward-flowing arm of the (Lilt Stream and were over t he immense twomillion-square-mile eddy of the midAtlantic where no currents came to stir the brackish water and where the rubbery fronds of sargassum weed collected in the great floating islands of the Sargasso, weirdest of all seas. They had flown almost twenty-four hours, yet there was no fatigue in the pulsing muscles of their breasts.
Throughout the night they flew steadily at a height of a half mile or so, the birds calling intermittently to each other. When the curlew was leading the flock his senses had to be kept sharply tuned to the vagaries of wind and the cosmic impulses which his brain interpreted into a sense of direction. Periodically, when he dropped back for rest, he could fly in a halfsleep, his w'ings beating automatically, his eyes half shut, following subconsciously the trailing air vortex of the bird ahead of him.
That night the North Star and the familiar constellations of the Arctic sky dropped almost to the* northern horizon. New star groups rose to the south. And shortly before dawn the wind freshened, a warm, firm wind that blew with monotonous constancy out of the northeast. They had entered the region o: the trade winds. It was a quartering tail wind that gave them almost another ten miles fin hour of speed.
Day, when it came, was hot despite the wind. This was the rim of the tropics, and the sea turned bluer, and condensation of the hot rising air gave the sky a lumpy patchwork of white cumulus clouds. Occasionally there were thicker knobs of cloud that hung motionless on the western horizon, the island signposts of the sea, for every island had its cap of cloud that was visible far beyond the island’s own horizons. These were the Lesser Antilles of the outer Caribbean. And far ahead, another twelve hours of flying away, were the jungles and mountains of South America.
Now their breasts and wing tendons were tiring from the thirty-six hours of flying behind them. Flight was no longer the effortless subconscious reflex it had been. It had become a function that had to be willed, only conscious concentration on the task kept their flagging wings working. Two nights and a day without food had slowed their body processes. Now they had to pant rapidly in the hot tropic air. their bills slightly agape, to capt ure the oxygen supply their lungs demanded.
The curlew knew that where the thick clouds dotted the western horizon there were islands only an hour or two’s flight away. But to reach them would require a course that would put the wind directly on their tails, and a wind from straight behind could interfere with flight, as seriously as a wind from dead ahead. So the curlew held to the original course. And he knew that long before the coast could be reached a third night would be upon them. Then the landfall would come in darkness and if the night were cloudy and black t here could be no landing even then until t he dawn light revealed the outlines of Venezuela’s mangrove swamps and river sand bars.
The day passed with interminable slowness, the sun sank finally into the Caribbean and the night dropped quickly without twilight. Then the overcast moved in to shut out moon and stars, and rain began falling, for they were reaching the tropics at the height of the rain season. It was a signal that the coast was approaching.
For another two hours they flew through rain. The curlew could see nothing, hut he knew immediately when they left the sea and were flying over land. First the rumble of surf came up through the darkness, then the air became turbulent with thermal updrafts lifting off the warmer land.
They could do nothing but fly on for hours longer. And now, with the knowledge that land lay below, the continuance of flight became the harshest ordeal of all. Every wingbeat was a torturing battle with lethargy and fatigue. And much of the energy used was now wasted, for their flight feathj ers were frayed and ragged, no longer capable of the sharp, propeling bite of feather against air which had made flight so easy and effortless when they left Labrador.
The curlew knew that once they had crossed the coastal strip with its beaches and river estuaries, there was nothing beyond for a hundred and fifty miles but the dense tangle of mangrove swamp where a landing was as impossible as on the open sea. Now, even if the night cleared, they would have to push on regardless until the flat, grassy llanos of the Venezuelan interior spread out below them. Despite the growing heaviness of their wings, the curlew led them upward to clear the coastal mountains he knew were ahead. The climb was a torturing anguish. They leveled off, but it brought no respite to the burning pangs of fatigue which throbbed in every fibre of their small bodies.
At last the dawn came, not yellow or red, but in a sombre pall of greyness. The land below was a drowned and sodden land of mud, water and swollen rivers, like the springtime tundra of the Arctic. The broad treeless valley of the great Orinoco spread in every direction as far as the grey pall would let them see. The rain st ill fell.
They had flown without rest or food I for almost sixty hours. From a land of snow and the northern lights, they had come nonstop to a land that was steam¡ ing with the rank growth of the tropics.
I Below them were hundreds of miles of mud flats and grassy prairie that teemed with the abundance of aquatic insect food that only the months of tropical rain could produce.
With the first misty light of the ; dawn, the curlew arched his stiffened wings and plunged downward in an almost vertical dive. He had spanned the length of a continent since his wings had last been still. The plovers folio wed. The flock touched down.
But not a bird rested, for feeding had to come first. Their stomachs had been empty fifty-five hours and they had flown close to three thousand miles on the fuel stored in Labrador as body fat. Now the fat was gone and in less than three days each bird had lost ten to fifteen percent, of its weight. Only the fact that they were the most economical fuel users in the animal world had made the flight possible. Each bird had burned about two ounces of fat over the ocean—at the same rate of fuel consumption, a half-ton plane would flv one hundred and sixty miles on a gallon of fuel instead of the usual twenty miles.
They fed rapidly until mid-morning, and only then did they rest. On the broad savannahs abutting the Orinoco, food was abundant. They fed again for several hours before the first tropic night brought darkness.
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This is the eighth in a series of bulletins of the United States National Museum on the life histories of North American birds by Arthur Cleveland Bent. Order Limicolae. Family Scolopacidae . . . Numenius borealis, Eskimo curlew . . .
I cannot believe that it was overtaken by any great catastrophe at sea which could annihilate it; it was strong of wing and could escape from or avoid severe storms. There is no evidence of disease or failure of food supply. No, there was only one cause, slaughter by human beings, slaughter in Labrador and New England in summer and fall, slaughter in South America in winter and slaughter, worst of all, from Texas to (,añada in the spring. They were so confiding, so full of sympathy for their fallen companions, that in closely packed ranks they fell, easy victims of the carnage. The gentle birds ran the gantlet all along the line and no one lifted a finger to protect them until it was too late . . •
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THF PLOVERS AND CURLEW lin, gered on the savannahs of the Orinoco for two weeks, rapidly growing fat again. Food was limitless, hut once more they felt the old restless torment calling them again to a more distant southland.
They took off on a bright moonlight night early in October, and by dawn they had reached the Amazon. That next night they turned southwest and another five hundred miles of flying put them, by dawn, within sight of the Peruvian Andes’ snow-capped peaks. For three nights following they Hew southeast. On the fifth dawn, gaunt and wing-worn again, they dropped to the grassy flatlands of the* Aigentinc pampas.
Spring was greening the pampas grass and giant thistle. Grasshoppers were emerging. For days the birds did little hut gorge on the insert life of the* short grass plains. Their worn wing feathers were molted one by one and replaced, giving them full flight power again. Here, they were eight thousand miles from the Arctic nesting grounds and of all the tundra shore bird species only the yellowlegs, knot, buff-breasted sandpiper and one or two others had migrated so far, yet at times t hi1 íestless migration urge still pressed the curlew and plovers on.
They straggled slowly southward. Ry the time the hot December sun had burned the giant thistles, and the pampas grass was silver with its nodding panicles of flowers, t hey were deep down into the stony undulating plains of Patagonia, within a single night s flight of the Antarctic Sea. The Herculean thrust of the migratory impulse had carried them from the very northernmost to the southernmost reaches of the mainland of the Americas. Yet even here there were still great flocks of shore birds. The days were long and hot, the brief nights cool. Of all the world’s living creatures, none hut the similarly far-flying Arctic tern sees as much sunlight as the shore birds which spend each year chasing, almost pole to pole, the iands of the midnight sun.
Now the urge of the migration time was dead. A peculiar lethargy gripped the plovers and they were content to fly back and forth between two salt, lagoons feeding, dozing, flying listlessly, waiting like an actor who has forgotten his lines for flu* prompting of instinct to tell them what to do next.
Rut within the curlew, as fast as the pressure of the migratory urge relaxed
a new tormenting pressure replaced it. It was the old vague hunger and loneliness. Suddenly the curlew remembered again that he lived alone in a world to which other members of his own species never came. A restlessness of a different sort beset him. He tried to lead the plovers farther afield but they would not follow. Finally the restlessness became irresistible. The curlew spiraled high, circled and re-circled the lagoon where the plovers were feeding. He called loudly and repeatedly, but tho plovers gave no sign of hearing. Then the curlew turned eastward toward the
coastal tide flats that he knew were there, many hours of flight, away. He was flying alone again.
Other shore birds too were drifting eastward toward the cool, food-rich mud flats of the seacoast, where vast flocks followed each low tide outward. Most of them were golden plover.
('ll! the tide flats the curlew wandered from flock to flock, searching restlessly he was not sure what, lí was January, and the tundra nine thousand miles to the north would remain for months yet a sleeping, lifeless land of blizzard and unending night, but the curlew began
to feel the Arctic’s first faint call. It was a feeble stirring deep wát hin, a signal that dormant sex glands were awakening again to another year’s breeding cycle. It was a nostalgic yearning for home. And the goal was explicit—not merely the Arctic, not the tundra, but that same tiny ridge of cobblestone by the S-twist of the river where the female would come and the nest would be.
The curlew started home. Drifting slowly from mud flat to mud flat, he didn’t move far each day, but the aimlessness was gone. In a week he was two hundred miles to the northward.
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The Committee on Bird Protection desires to present herewith to the Fifty-fifth Stated Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ l nion the results of its inquiries during 1939 into the current causes of depletion or maintenance of our bird life . . . hut the most dangerously situated are unquestionably the California Condor, Kskimo Curlew and Ivory-hilled Woodpecker. They have heen reduced to the point
where numbers may be so low that individuals remain separated, thus interfering with reproduction . . .
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The arrival of the female was a strangely drab and undramatie climax to a lifetime of waiting. One second the curlew was feeding busily at the edge of the breakers, surrounded by dozens of plovers, yet alone; the next second the female curlew was there, not three feet away, so close that when she held her wings extended in the moment after landing even the individual feathers
were sharply distinguishable. She had come in with a new flock of nine plovers. They had dropped down silently, unnoticed. She lowered her wings slowly and deliberately, a movement much more graceful than the alighting pattern of the plovers. Her long, downward-sweeping hill turned toward him.
The female bobbed up and down jerkily on her long greenish legs and a low, muffled quirking came deep from within her throat. 'The male bobbed and answered softly.
Recognition was instantaneous and
intuitive. The male knew he had been mistaken many times before. He knew that the puzzlingly similar Hudsonian curlews were far to the north, wintering on the shores of the Caribbean, and that only another Eskimo curlew could be this far south. He knew this new curlew was smaller and slightly browner, like himself, than the others had been. But these thoughts were fleeting, barely formed. It was a combination of voice, posture, the movements of the other bird, and not her appearance, which signaled instantly that the mate had come.
For a minute they stood almost motionless, eyeing each other, bobbing occasionally. A small sea snail crept through a shallow film of tidewater at his feet and the curlew snapped it up quickly, crushing the shell with his bill. But he didn’t eat it himself. With his neck extended, throat feathers jutting out jaggedly and legs stiff, the male strutted in an awkward sideways movement to the female’s side and handed her the snail with his bill. The female hunched forward, her wings partly extended and quivering vigorously. She took the snail, swallowing it quickly.
In this simple demonstration of courtship feeding, the mide had offered himself as a mate and been accepted. The love-making had begun.
Now they resumed feeding individually, ignoring each other, but never straying far apart. And the cobble bar by the S-twist of the distant tundra river called the male as never before.
At dusk he took wing and circled over the female, whistling to her softly. .She sprang into the air beside him and together they flew inland over the co estai hills. They landed on a grassy hillside when darkness fell and they slept close together, their necks almost touching.
'They returned to the beaches at dawn and began to move northward more rapidly, alternating flights of ten miles or so at a time with stops for feeding. The call of the tundra grew more powerful and each day they moved faster than the day before, flying more and eating less. Bv early February they were a thousand miles north of where they had started, still following the seaeoast tide flats, and the springtime outpouring of hormones began filling them with a growing excitement. Now the male would frequently stop suddenly while feeding and strut like a game cock before the female with his throat puffed out and tail feathers expanded into a great fan over his back. The female would respond to the love-making by crouching, her wings aquiver, and beg for food like a young bird. Then the male would offer her a food tidbit and their bills would touch and the love display suddenly end.
One dusk the male led her high above the browning pampas and darkness came and they continued flying. The short daytime flights were not carrying them northward fast enough to appease the growing migratory urge. They left the seaeoast. far behind and headed inland northwesterly toward the distant peaks of the Andes. Now the male felt a sudden release of the tension within him, for with the first night flight there was recognition that the migration had really begun.
They flew six hours and their wings were tired. It was still dark when they landed, to rest till the dawn. Now they moved little during the day, hut at sunset the curlew led his mate high into the air and turned northwestward again. Each night their wings strengthened and in a week they were flying from dusk to dawn without alighting.
They flew close together, the male always leading, the female a foot or two behind and slightly aside riding the air vortex of one of his wingtips. They talked constantly in the darkness, soft lisping notes that rose faintly above the whistle of air past their wings, and the male began to forget that he had ever known the torture of being alone.
The northward route through South America was different from the southward flight. When they passed over the pampas into the forested region of northern Argentina, feeding places became mort; difficult to find, Five hundred miles to the west were the beaches of the Pacific but the towering cordillera of the Andes lay between. They were entering the region of the southeast trades and to fly now with a favorable beam wind they could turn northeastward into the endless equatorial jungles of Brazil where food and even landing places would be scarce for fifteen hundred miles, or they could swing westward to challenge the high, thin, stormy air of the Andes which had the coastal beaches of t he Pacific just beyond. The curlew instinctively tinned westward.
For a whole night they flew into foothills which sloped upward interminably, climbing steadily hour after hour until their wings throbbed with the fatigue. And at dawn, when they landed on a thickly grassed plateau, the rolling land ahead still sloped upward endlessly as far as sight could reach, to disappear eventually in a sawtoothed horizon where white clouds and snow peaks merged indistinguishablv.
When the sun set. silhouetting the | Andean peaks against a golden sky. the j curlews flew again. Flight was slow and labored for the angle of climb grew j constantly steeper. The air grew thin, | providing less support for their wings j and less oxygen for their rapidly workI ing lungs. They tired quickly and hours before dawn they dropped exhausted to a steep rocky slope where a thin covering of moss and lichen clung precariously. For the remainder of the j night they stood close together resting, | braced against the cold gusty winds.
Daylight illuminated a harsh barren world, a vertical landscape of grey rock across which wisps of foggy cloud scudded like white wings of the unending wind. And the top of this world was still far above them. The peaks that t hey yet had to cross were hidden in a dense ceiling of boiling cloud. Even here, though, there were insects and the curlews fed. It was slow and difficult feeding, not because food was scanty, but because every movement was a tiring effort, using up oxygen that the blood regained slowly and painfully.
At dusk the air cooled suddenly and the fog scud changed to snow. They didn’t fly. The turbulent air currents and the great barrier of rock and glacier ahead demanded daylight for the crossing.
There was no sleep, even little rest, that night. The wind screeched up the mountain face, driving hard particles of snow before it, until at times the birds could hardly stand against it. They clung toget her neck to neck and the heat of their bodies melted a small oval in the hard granular snow.
The wind slackened at dawn. When the snow changed to fog again and the sun pierced it feebly in a faint yellow glow, they took off and spiraled upward into the flat cloud layer that hid the peaks above. In a minute they were entombed in a ghostly world of white mist which pressed in damp and heavy upon them. They spiraled tightly, climbing straight upward into air so 1 t hin that their wings seemed to be beating in a vacuum and their lungs when filled still strained for breath.
In the cloud layer the air was turbulent. Occasionally there were pockets where the air was hard, and their wings bit into it firmly and they climbed rapidly, then the air would thin out
again, and for several minutes they would barely hold their own.
They broke free of the swirling cloud mass finally and came out into a calm, clear sky. It was a weird, bizarre world of intense cold and dazzling light which seemed disconnected from all things of earth. The cloud layer just below them stretched from horizon to horizon in a great white rolling plain that looked firm enough to alight upon. A mile away a mountain peak lifted its cap of perpetual snow through the cloud, and in the distance were other peaks rising like rocky islands out of a white sea.
The curlews leveled off close to the cloud layer and flew toward the peak. Flight was painful and slow'. They flew with bills open, gasping the thin air. Their bodies ached.
They approached the mountain top and landed for rest on a turret of grey rock swept bare of snow by the wind. Now a new torment racked their aching bodies, for the dry. rarified air had quickly exhausted body moisture, and their hot throats burned with thirst.
The pain drained from their bodies and the curlews flew westward again past the wind-sculptured snow ridges
and out into the strangely unattached and empty world of dazzling sunlight and cloud beyond. They flew a long time, afraid to drop down through the cloud again until there was some clue as to what lav below it, and far behind them the peak grew indistinct and fuzzy beneath its líalo of mist and snow. The cloud layer over which they flew loosened, its smooth, firm top breaking up into a tumbling series of deep valleys and high white hills. The valleys deepened, then one of them dropped precipitously without a bottom so that it wasn’t a valley but a hole that went completely through the cloud. Through the hole, the birds could see a sandy, desertlike plateau strewn with green cacti clumps and brown ridges of sandstone, two to three miles below.
They had been silent all day, for the high altitude flight took all the energy their bodies could produce, but now the male called excitedly as he led the female sharply downward between Hawaiis of cloud. The air whistled past them and they zigzagged erratically to check the speed of t he descent. At first the air was too thin to give their wings
much braking power and they plunged earthward with little control, then the air grew firmer, it, pressed hard against their wing feathers and they dropped more slowly. When they came out below the cloud layer they leveled off again and headed toward the faint blue line of the Pacific visible at t he horizon.
Here the day was dull and sunless, not glaring with light, but the air was warm. Anil the air now had a substance that could be felt. It gave power and lift to their wings again and it filled their lungs without leaving an aching breathless torment when exhaled.
Late that afternoon they alighted on a narrow beach of the Pacific. They drank hurriedly of the salt water for a couple of minutes. Then they fed steadily until the dusk.
With twilight the sky cleared and the great volcanic cones of the Andes, now etched sharply against the greying east, assumed a frightening massiveness. Every year the male curlew’s migratory instinct had led him across this towering barrier of limestone, storm and snow. And every year before the memory of it dimmed, the curlew looked back and even his slow-working brain
could marvel at the endurance of his own wings.
THE NARROW COASTAL STRIP between the Andes and the sea is a parched region of sandy desert plateaus where rain rarely falls. Few rivers tumble' down the Andes’ western slopes into the Pacific to create the estuary mud flats on which the tides can scatter the foodstuff of the sea for the shorebird flocks. So here the shore birds oat sparsely.
The curlews followed the narrow Peruvian beaches northward, flying hard each night until the dawn, using every hour of daylight in the wearying search for food. In less than a week they covered two thousand miles and reached the sandy flatlands of Punta Parinas near the equator, where the South American coast turns hack northeastward toward its juncture a thousand miles away with the Isthmus of Panama.
March was almost here. Far to the north, spring would be moving up the Mississippi Valley, greening the cottonwoods and prairie grasses. And the tundra was still six thousand miles away. Now the Arctic beckoned with a fever and fierceness that their aching and wasted breast muscles couldn’t still.
Here the coast swung in a great 2,500-mile crescent east, north and west to the rich highlands of Guatemala, but straight north, across the bight of the Pacific enclosed by tíos crescent, Guatemala was only 1,200 miles away. The male curlew was still hungry, his crop half-filled, when night began cooling the hot sands of the Parinas desert. He climbed into the tropic twilight and the female followed close behind. And he turned north, away from the low coast-land, out into the Pacific where the landfall of Central America lay twenty-four hours of flying away.
They flew silently, wasting neither breath nor energy with calling to each other. It would be an ocean crossing only half as long as the exhausting autumn flight down the Atlantic from Labrador to South America, but the crowberries of Labrador always assured that the autumn flight could begin with bodies fat and fully nourished. Now they were wasted and thin. In two hours their stomachs were gaunt and empty again.
The moon set and the dawn came, and they flew hour upon hour, the speed of their wingbeats never varying.
The sun was setting again when the hard blue of the sea at the horizon ahead of them became edged with a narrow, hazy strip of grey-blue. For several minutes il looked like a cloud, then its texture hardened, and behind it higher in the sky emerged the serrated line of the Guatemalan and Honduran mountain ranges. The outline of the distant volcanic peaks sharpened. The lowland close to the sea changed from blue to green, and a white strip of foaming surf took form at its lower edge. There was still a half hour of daylight when the curlews reached the palm-fringed beach. They commenced eating immediately. When darkness came the pain of hunger and fatigue was already diminishing.
They fed busily all next morning, but the feeding was not good for the beaches were scattered and narrow, and swept clean by the Pacific’s surf. By noon the day was very hot, but the curlews flew again. They flew inland now, for this was the Central American summer and the grassy highlands of the interior would have a rich crop of grasshoppers. They flew across the coastal plain which rose gently into the mountains behind, then entered a narrow valley which led them through to the rolling tablelands beyond.
Finally they landed on a hilly plateau two hundred miles inland from the Pacific. Here, for the first time, the curlews joined the hosts of migrants which were flowing northward to overtake the North American spring. In the forested valleys were swarms of tanagers, thrushes and warblers, all feeding busily to store energy for the long night flights. On the grassy uplands were floc ks of other shore birds and bobolinks.
On the sloping hills grasshoppers swarmed everywhere. The curlews fed until their crops and stomachs were gorged. With nightfall thousands of other migrants began passing overhead, their lisping chorus of flight notes an uninterrupted signal of their passage. But the curlews waited, for winter still gripped their Arctic nesting grounds and here they could fatten for the final dash north.
They waited a week, feeding well, straggling slowly northward each day. Their bodies grew firm and plump again and with the return of strength the mating urge burned like a fever within them. By the* end of the week they had moved out the Yucatan peninsula to its tip. Five hundred miles northward across the Gulf of Mexico were the swampy shores of Louisiana and Texas, with nothing beyond but the flat unobstructed prairies reaching almost to the Arctic.
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. . . but the greatest killings occurred after the birds had crossed the (hilf of Mexico in spring and the great flocks moved northward up the North American plains.
These flocks contained thousands of individuals and when a flock would alight the birds would cover 40 or 50 acres of ground. The slaughter was almost unbelievable. Hunters would shoot the birds without mercy until they had literally slaughtered a wagonload of them, the wagons being actually filled, and often with the sidehoards on at that. Sometimes when the flight was unusually heavy and the hunters were well supplied with ammunition their wagons were too quickly and easily filled, so whole loads of the birds would be dumped on the prairie, their bodies forming piles as large as a couple of tons of coal, where they would be allowed to rot while the hunters proceeded to refill their wagons with fresh victims.
In addition to the numerous gunners who shot these birds for local consumption or simply for the love of killing, there developed a class of professional market hunters, who made it a business to follow the flights . . .
In the Eighties the Eskimo curlew began decreasing rapidly . . .
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MARCH HAI) COME. In Canada far to the north, robins, bluebirds and kildeers were already nest-building. Here on the Yucatan coast the later migrants waited, gathering strength, until an îvening with favorable wind would ¡•end them by thousands into the falling night, out into the wide sweep of the Gulf of Mexico.
One afternoon after two or three Jays of calm the wind freshened and a rest lessness seized the small bird flocks. Bobolinks and thrushes were rising into the air, making short flights out over ;he water and returning, testing wind and wings. For the curlews, the 500mile migration across the gulf would Ik; no more than an average night’s flight. But for the smaller songsters, with half the flight speed of the curlews, it was
the migration’s most rigorous ordeal and the time of starting had to be carefully appraised. By mid - afternoon many of them were not returning from the test flights. They were climbing high above the surf and in twos and threes were continuing seaward until the black specks of their bodies dissolved into the blue of the skv. By sunset the Yucatan shore was strangely quiet. Only the two curlews and a few other shore birds remained.
It was dark and a full moon was rising when the curlews flew. Now they flew an oversea fly way that was dotted
with other birds, and in two hours the curlews began overtaking the smaller birds that liad started earlier. The air was filled with call notes, and wings glistened silver in the moonlight all around.
The curlews passed cuckoos that would nest in New England, thrushes and bay-breasted warblers that would mate in the dark spruce forests of the far nort h, blackpoll warblers that would continue on to Alaska, bobolinks and dickcissels that would fan out across the mid-continental prairies, and brilliant little vermilion flycatchers that
would stop and nest as soon as they reached the Louisiana coast. Most of the birds would fly twenty hours before they reached the American mainland. The curlews would take ten hours.
After four or five hours, the curlews had passed through the flight of smaller birds and were alone again. Suddenly the air grew cool and heavier, giving more lift to their wings, and the easterly trade wind shifted almost to south. Feathery scuds of cloud dimmed the moon at intervals, then the clouds massed into a thick, black, lumpy ceiling and the night was very dark and t he gulf waters below were lost in the night’s blackness. The wind shifted easterly again, then within fifteen minutes it reversed itself entirely and was blowing from the north, gusty and erratic. And then the rain came; it. was almost a solid wall of driving water.
After t he first explosive outburst, the wind and rain moderated into a steady, lingering storm. It lasted about five hours and the curlews came through the rear of the storm into a clear sky just as the sun was rising. Normally they would have flown on, high over the lagoons and salt marshes of the Texas coast, to land on the prairies of the alluvial plains far inland, but the storm had tired them, their wet wing feathers clung together clammily and responded awkwardly to their pulsing muscles, and the curlews glided low over the beach as soon as they reached the coast.
It was a long, narrow island of sand dunes and grassland that stretched for miles paralleling the coastline. In the hollows of the sand flats there were numerous ponds with water replenished by the rain of the night before. Hosts of other shore birds that had left the Yucatan coast ahead of the curlews had also been forced down by the storm and they fed and preened intermittently at the pond edges. The curlews passed over several flocks of plovers and willets, then they breasted a dune and came out suddenly over a broad patchwork of marshy ponds that was dotted with hundreds of Hudsonian curlews. The Hudsonians called to them noisily and the two Eskimo curlews set their wings and pitched down among them.
But they remained with the Hudsonians only that day. At. nightfall the two Eskimo curlews flew on alone and in brilliant moonlight two hours later they landed on prairie a hundred miles inland.
Now the migratory restlessness eased again and the curlews were content to wait while the spring moved on ahead of them. Instinct, not reasoning, told them that all the obstacles of the migration were behind and now for three thousand miles to the Arctic there were only the great flat lands of the American and Canadian plains, teeming with ! food, lacking mountains, lacking even I a range of hills large enough to interfere j with the home-coming flight, it was ; the home stretch and they could span it. in a week if need he. But the migra! tory urge was temporarily dead. The j curlews didn’t know that the tundra i would not he ready for the nesting for more than two months yet. They only knew that t he Texas prairies were rich with the insect life of awakening spring. i And they felt an urge to stay.
It was early April when the restlessness seized them and they began making brief night flights again. 1’hey flew easily, stopping always many hours before dawn, sometimes not moving^at all for several days at a time. They would wait as the spring moved northward far ahead of them, then in a couple of rapid night flights they would overtake and pass the spring again and wait for it to catch up. The signal to move was the blooming of t he willows on t he river bottomlands. When the fluffy catkins opened, dusting the evening breezes : with the yellow pollen, they would take to the air and fly until they reached a ' point farther north where the willow Buds were unopened and the prairie grass still brown. Then they would wait, feeding luxuriantly on the cap| suies of grasshopper eggs which their sensitive hills could feel in the damp soil, and when the willow catkins pierced their buds the curlews would fly northward again.
Each week they moved faster, for the advancing spring picked up speed as it reached more northern latitudes. THE Al K A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology Published by The American Ornithologists’ Union
General Notes. Natural Hybrids Between Dendroica coronata and I), auduhoni . . . Rivoli’s Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens) in Colorado • - • Eskimo Curlew in Texas. Two Eskimo curlews which appeared to be a mated pair were seen in March at Galveston, Texas, by the writer and a number of Houston observers. The birds were amongst a huge assemblage of marsh and shore birds, including Buff-breasted and other sandpipers, Blackbellied Plovers, Eastern and Western VVi 1 lets, various herons, and hundreds of Hudsonian Curlews. All were feeding over a wide area of sand flats, shallow ponds and grassy patches on Galveston Island, which parallels the coast. Nearness of the Eskimo Curlews to Hudsonians gave fine opportunity for comparison. Fully an hour was spent checking every identification mark through eight-power glasses at a range of less than one hundred yards from our parked car . . . As is often the case along the Texas gulf coast during spring migration, a heavy rainstorm and change of wind from south to north during the previous night brought down a swarming visitation of migrants . . .
A Summary of the Spring M igra t ion
Undoubtedly the most noteworthy record was the observation of a pair of Eskimo curlews on Galveston Island, Texas, the first acceptable record of this species in several years. For twenty years only an occasional lone Eskimo curlew has been seen and the fact that these were probably a mated pair makes it a record of great significance. As long as one pair remains the species may yet escape extinction ...
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NOW IT WAS CORN-PLANTING time on the Nebraska and Dakota prairies and great steel monsters that roared like the ocean surf were crossing and recrossing the stubble fields leaving black furrows of fresh-turned soil in orderly ranks behind them. Most of the shore birds shunned the growling machines and the men who were always riding them. Yellowlegs and sandpipers would stop their feeding and watch warily when the plowman was still hundreds of yards off, then if the great machine came closer they would take wing, whistling shrilly, and not alight again until they were a mile away. Rut the Eskimo curlews had little fear, and they followed the roaring machines closely for the white grubs and cutworms that the plows turned up.
All the time their reproductive glands had been swelling in the annual springtime rhythm of development, the development keeping pace with the northward march of spring, so that their bodies and the tundra would become ready simultaneously for the nesting and egg-laying. As the physical development came close to the zenith of its cycle, there was an intensification of emotional development too.
Now many times a day the male curlew’s mounting emotion boiled over into a frantic display of love. It had become a much more violent display than the earlier acts of courtship. First the male would spring suddenly into the air and hover on quivering wings while he sang the clear, rolling, mating
song—a song much more liquid and mellow now than at any other time of year. After a few seconds his wings would beat violently and he would rise almost straight upward, his long legs trailing behind, until he was a couple of hundred feet above the prairie. There he would hover again, singing louder so that bursts of the song would reach the female, bobbing and whistling excitedly far below. Then he would close his wings and dive straight toward her. swerving upward again in the last few feet above her head.
Panting with emotion, singing in
loud bursts, his throat and breast inflated with aír and the feathers thrust outward, he would hold his wings extended gracefully over his back until the female invited the climactic approach. She would bob quickly with quivering wings and call with the harsh, food-begging cries of a fledgling bird. Then he would dash toward her, his wings beating vigorously again so that he was almost walking on air. Their swollen breasts woidd touch. The male’s neck would reach past her own and he would tenderly preen her brown wing feathers with his long bill.
It would last for only a few seconds, and the male would dash away again. He would pick up the largest grub he could lind and return quickly to the female. Then he would place it gently into her bill. She would swallow it, her throat feathers would suddenly flatten, her wings stop quivering, and the lovemaking abruptly end. For as yet the courtship feeding was the love climax.
They moved north steadily, a couple of hundred miles each night. The male’s development matured first and he was ready for the finalizing of the Continued on page 78 Continued from page 75 mating. He spent most of each day in violent, display before the female, but with each courtship feeding her tenseness suddenly relaxed and the display would end.
It was mid-May and the newly plowed sections of rolling Canadian prairie steamed in the warming sun. They followed closely behind the big machine with the roar like an ocean surf. The grubs were fat and they twisted convulsively in the few seconds that the sun hit them before the curlews snapped t hem up. Now t lie snows
of the tundra would be melting. In the ovaries of the female the first of her four developing eggs was ready for fertilization.
The male flung himself into the air, his love song wild and vibrant. He hovered high above the black soil of the prairie with its fresh striated pattern of furrows. The roar of the big machine stopper! and the curlew hardly noted the change, for his senses wert; focused on the female quivering excitedly against the dark earth far below. The man on the tractor sat stiffly, his head thrown back, staring upward,
his eyes shaded against the sun with one hand. The curlew dove earthward and the female called him stridently. He plucked a grub from the ground and dashed at her, his neck outstretched, wings fluttering vigorously. He saw the man leap down from the tractor seat and run toward a fence where his jacket hung. Normally, at this, even t he curlews would have taken wing in alarm, but now the female accepted the courtship feeding and her wings still quivered in a paroxysm of mating passion. And in the excitement of the mating they were blind to everything
around them but their own love.
The thunder burst upon them out of a clear and vivid sky. The roar of it seemed to come from all directions at once. The soil around them was tossed upward in a score of tiny black splashes like water being pelted with hail.
The male flung himself into the air. He flew swiftly, clinging close to the ground so that no speed was lost in climbing for height. Then he saw the female wasn’t with him. He circled back, keering out to her in alarm. Her brown body still crouched on the field where they had been. The male flew down and hovered a few feet above her,
] calling wildly.
Then the thunder burst a second time and a violent but invisible blow blasted two of the biggest feathers from one of his extended wings. The impact twisted him completely over in mid-air and he thudded into the earth at the female’s side. Terrified and bewildered at a foe that could strike without visible form, he took wing again. Then the bewilderment overcame his terror and he circled back to his mate a second time. Now she was standing, keerinn also in wild panic. Her wings beat futilely several times before she could raise herself slowly into the air. She gained height and flight speed laboriously and the male moved in until he was close beside her.
He continued to call clamorously as he flew, but the female became silent. They flew several minutes and the field with the terrifying sunlight thunder was left far behind. Hut the female flew slowly. She kept dropping behind and the male would circle back and urge her on with frantic pleas, then he would outdistance her again.
Her flight became slower and clumsy. One wing was beating awkwardly and it kept throwing her off balance. The soft huffy feathers of the breast under the wing wore turning black and wet. She started calling to him again, not the loud calls of alarm but the soft, throaty quirking of the love display.
Then she dropped suddenly. Her wings kept fluttering weakly, it was similar to the excited quivering of the mating moment, and her body twisted over and over until it embedded itself in the damp earth below.
The male called wildly for her to follow. The terror of the ground had not yet left him. Hut the female didn’t move. He circled and re-circled above and his plaintive cries must have reached her, but she didn’t call back.
A long time later he overcame the fear and landed on the ground close to her. He preened her wing feathers softly with his bill. When the night came the lure of the tundra became a stubborn, compelling call, for the time of the nesting was almost upon them. He flew repeatedly, whistling back to her, then returning, but the female wouldn’t fly with him. Finally he slept close beside her.
At dawn he hovered high in the grey sky, his lungs swelling with the cadence of his mating song. Now she didn’t respond to the offer of courtship feeding. The tundra call was irresistible. He flew again and called once more. Then he leveled off, the rising sun glinted pinkly on his feathers, and he headed north in silence, alone.
The snow-water ponds and the cobblestone bar and the dwarfed willows that stood beside the S-twist. of the tundra river were unchanged. The curlew was tired from the long flight. Hut when a golden plover flew close to the territory’s boundary he darted madly to the attack. The Arctic summer would be short. The territory must be held in readiness for the female his instinct told him soon would come. ★