Sustainability involves minimizing the impacts of our activities on other species, especially species at risk. So here’s a blog on the wildlife conservation side.
We’ve just passed an important milestone for the Eskimo Curlew, one of the most endangered birds in North America. The last confirmed sighting of this species happened 50 years ago this month, on September 4, 1963, when a hunter saw one in Barbados and shot it. The carcass was given to an American ornithologist named James Bond (the inspiration for a certain fictional spy called 007) who passed it along to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, where it is still on display. You can see it here.
Throughout the 1800s, the Eskimo Curlew was a diminutive, abundant shorebird that nested in northwestern Canada and wintered in Argentina. The great naturalist John James Audubon noted that it showed up in Labrador each summer in numbers that reminded him of the super-abundant Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914. Ironically, these two birds would follow very similar paths. In the late 1800s, when pigeons had become scarce due to loss of breeding habitat and overharvesting, hunters turned their attention to curlews. That pressure, coupled with the extinction of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper (a favorite food) and other factors, caused curlew numbers to go into a steep decline. The last confirmed Canadian sighting was in 1932 in Labrador.
The 50-year mark is important because that’s how much time has to elapse before a species can be declared formally extinct, according to Environment Canada guidelines. Other criteria have to be met as well, but 50 years without a confirmed sighting is a big one. Occasional curlew sightings have been reported since 1963, reviving hope that a small population persists, but none have been confirmed with a photograph or specimen
One of these unconfirmed sightings is directly connected to the RSM. On May 14, 1982, Robert Kreba (right), an avid birder who worked for the RSM, reported seeing an Eskimo Curlew in a meadow by Wascana Creek, just east of Regina. He watched the bird for two hours, noting its black crown, fine white eye-stripes, barred tail, spotted breast, and distinctive cinnamon wing linings. Bob was a respected and observant naturalist, so it is tempting to think that he had actually encountered “the most exciting bird I have ever seen in my life!” He would also have reset the clock for this species, if he had managed to get the bird in hand or on film. But as it stands, the Eskimo Curlew is now one step closer to joining the ranks of birds lost forever because of human activity.
If you think you've seen an Eskimo Curlew, please get in touch with Dr. Cheri Gratto-Trevor, Chair of the Eskimo Curlew Recovery Team.