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The worrying decline of The Curlew – are we hearing their last calls

“Never heard the solitary whistle of curlew on a summer noon…without feeling an elevation of the soul”

So said Robbie Burns. But worrying reports show we maybe hearing less and less of the curlews call.

We are blessed in Yorkshire to have the curlew as a regular visitor to this region. Living in Burley in Wharfedale on the edge of Rombalds Moor I get to see the Curlews on a daily basis first hand as a pair nest in the field next to my house – their distinctive call is a sure sign spring is here when the curlews return each year.

But walking my dog in late October we came across a sight I had never seen before. About 50 curlews flying in formation and landing in a field, they were followed by another 30 or so and then 30 more.

Once they had landed there we in excess of 100 curlews. It was an amazing sight and sods law that I had forgotten my phone so was unable to record this memorable moment.

I have since found out that the collective noun for curlews is a “Curfew of Curlews”.

Looking into why the birds were massing in such great numbers, it turns out they were gathering to make their annual journey to coastal areas for over wintering. This migration usually happens in October and November each year. This makes sense as they actually belong to the wading bird family, although much of the year they are seen nowhere near water.

From tagged curlew studies it is known that some of the birds travel south to warmer climes in southern Spain and Northern Africa but now more and more birds are choosing to travel shorter distances and over wintering in France, Ireland and the West Coast of England and Scotland. They winter in wetlands and their diet changes during this time of the year.

Their time in these estuaries, sheltered coasts and marshes is spent looking for crabs (which they eat whole, molluscs and worms.

But whilst researching The Curlew, I was sad to hear that they were recently put on an “at risk list “ as the breeding population of curlews has declined by 50% over the last 25 years. Studies show than up to 70% of curlew nests do not end up producing a surviving chick, a really worrying statistic .

As the UK is home to 25% of the world’s breeding pairs, the decline could be catastrophic for the global Curlew population

The evocative sound and previously familiar call of the curlew is becoming increasingly rare.

There are actually 8 species of curlew which come to the UK, but by far the most common is the Eurasian Curlew. Their distinctive features include their long legs used to paddle in marshes during the winter and their long downward curving beak for poking around for food in the marshes and estuaries.

You can actually tell the male from the female as the female usually has the longer beak.

Did you know? An old Scottish name for the curlew is 'Whaup' or 'Great Whaup'

The curlews decline can be put down to a number of factors. The main reasons for this low breeding success is the loss, degradation and fragmentation of breeding habitat. But two other issues are also having a negative affect – chick predation and agricultural nest destruction.

The ideal breeding site would be a wet area for feeding and a dry area for nesting, with medium length vegetation for protection. Lowland wet grassland on the edge of a moor used for sheep or cattle would be ideal.

Sadly these areas are becoming less common, agricultural usage is changing with improved drainage, use of fertilisers, grass re-seeding leading to less diversification of plants and therefore lower numbers of food sources, insects and earth worms.

As these changes take place there becomes less suitable breeding grounds for the curlew. Being ground nesting birds, those that do build nests often find them destroyed by the greater use of heavy agricultural machinery used to manage the land which had previously been managed by livestock.

Another risk for the ground nesting birds is predation. Both fox and crow populations have risen over the last 20 years and both feed on both curlew eggs and the new born chicks. Predation of curlew chicks has increased from 16% to 65% of chicks born.

The only slight light on the horizon is that populations on Moorland are proving to be more robust as they do not have quite the predation or risk of heavy agricultural machinery use.

But, whilst the curlews tend to leave Yorkshire in the Autumn – the sight of their return in Spring is an uplifting occasion. You hear them first, with their distinctive `cur-looo’ call. In actual fact their name comes from the French word corlieu which was basically and onomatopoeia of their call.

Lord Grey wrote in The Charm of Birds, “there is none that I would prefer to the spring notes of the curlew … The notes do not sound passionate: they suggest peace, rest, healing, joy, an assurance of happiness past, present and to come. To listen to curlews on a bright, clear April day, with the fullness of spring still in anticipation, is one of the best experiences that a lover of birds can have.”

The birds come back to breed in March and what is a lovely fact is that the pairs remain faithful to their partners, returning to the same site to breed year on year.

After building their nests on dry ground in a narrow cup of grass, they cleverly avoid letting people know where it is by landing some distance from the nest and walking through the heather or long grass to return. Both the male and female work in harmony to incubate the eggs once laid, by spending shifts of 2/3 hours in rotation on the nest.

Usually 4 eggs are laid and the chicks usually appear within 4 weeks. The chicks are mobile from birth following their parents away from the nest to feed on worms, catepillars, beetles, spiders and other insects within hours of birth.

It takes another 30 days for them to learn to fly (fledge).

They really are one of mine and my wife’s favourite birds, we have carvings and some wonderful paintings of curlews on display in one of our rooms in our house.

I guess that we need to keep our fingers crossed that as more traditional farming techniques start to become popular again, some of the threats to curlews lessen.

But one thing we can do for the dog owners out there is from the end of March to the end of July, when the birds are nesting up on the moors – keep you dog on a lead to avoid them disturbing the nests of these and other ground nesting birds. Even small things could make a difference to this precariously balanced population of birds.

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