Long-Billed Curlew

Numenius americanus
Range Map

The Long-Billed Curlew is a distinctive bird. In North America, sometimes these birds are confused with Whimbrels. With its long beak, it can forage deeper into the sand and mudflats than any of its competitors. They are the largest shorebird with the longest beak in North America. We see them often on shorelines of lakes and oceans, yet they are perfectly at home foraging in agricultural fields.

When the breeding season arrives, these birds head to the interior of the American western Great Plains and Great Basin states. Short or mixed grasslands usually satisfies their nesting needs. After leaving the breeding grounds, most birds leave for Mexico and the southern USA states, especially the coastlines. We may find anywhere some birds wintering on the Pacific coast from the Canadian border to Central America.

The Long-Billed Curlew has two close relatives in Asia and Europe; the Eurasian Curlew and the critically endangered Far Eastern Curlew. Differentiating the sexes in these birds is difficult, though observers believe that the bills of the females are longer, and more decurved at the tip. It’s not unusual in shorebirds for the females of the species to depart from the breeding grounds early, leaving the males to attend the child-rearing duties. Our Long-Billed Curlew is no exception.

These large shorebirds are easy to find in coastal San Diego County. I’ve met many of these birds on the coastlines of South San Diego Bay and its adjacent wetlands. My first meeting with these birds on their breeding grounds was on Antelope Island of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, when I found a probable male bird standing on a large rock in the middle of a grassy field advertising his location to any females within eyesight or earshot.

Some scientist regard the Long-Billed Curlew as monotypic (i.e. no subspecies), but others believe there are two subspecies. Those would-be subspecies are:

  • N. a. americanus breeds in northeastern Nevada and east to South Dakota and in Utah, New Mexico, Oklahoma northern Texas. They spend winters from California and Texas south to Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
  • N. a. parvus breeds in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, northeastern California and South Dakota. The spend winters in California, and Louisiana S to Mexico.

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