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Leading With Science: Tracking Long-billed Curlews

Cool Facts About Curlews

  • Both the male and female incubate eggs in nests they scrape out of the ground using their feet and chests.
  • Curlews defend their nests and young by feigning injury to lure predators away. 
  • Females lay only four eggs per season, and many are destroyed by predators,so their numbers grow slowly.
  • Bills of female curlews are longer, flatter and more curved than the males'.

Learn how cattle are helping curlews (pdf)


When long-billed curlews head south for the winter, they don't waste any time.  At least that was the case with one female who flew from the prairies of Montana to the warm climes of Mexico in just over a day's time -- nearly 1,250 miles in 27 hours!  She's one of seven curlews who are leading scientists on a virtual journey from their nests on the grasslands of north-central Montana to their winter homes in Texas, California and Mexico; with the Conservancy and local ranchers helping to make it possible.

The sweetly melancholy call of the Long-billed Curlew – cur-lee, cur-lee, cur-lee - is the harbinger of summer on the prairies of Montana. Each spring, this delicate bird with the long curved beak -- the largest shorebird in North America -- flocks to Montana’s prairies to breed and nest. In late-July, they start to leave as quickly as they arrived, headed for their southern wintering grounds. But no one was sure exactly where they went, or how they got there. 

"We always knew they would come in the spring and leave again," said rancher Bud Walsh, "but it will be fun to find out where they go learn more about a bird that's been around here since I was a kid."  (read more on cattle and curlews)

In May, Dr. Nils Warnock of the University of California-Davis, Bob Gill of the U.S. Geological Survey and Gary Page of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory battled mud, snow and biting winds in a quest to tag ten curlews on the Conservancy's 60,000 acre Matador Ranch and surrounding grassland.  One thing they hope to learn is whether the birds that are nesting on Montana ranches this year will return.  Even though curlew pairs sometimes mate again in consecutive years, they aren't necessarily as faithful to their nesting grounds.  

According to Dr. Warnock, “Long-billed Curlews are a regular breeder in Montana’s prairies, yet where these birds winter is still a mystery.  Will they winter along the coast of Mexico as a few of the curlews we tagged in Nevada have; will they winter exclusively in agricultural lands as curlews marked in Oregon have; or will they do something completely different?  This is a mystery we hope to unlock.” 

Data sent back from the solar-powered satellite telemetry tags attached to the birds, will help unravel the mystery.  Researchers can now follow their migration routes and stopovers in real time, as well as help define the kind of habitat the curlews need.

Rancher Dale Veseth and his wife Janet gave the team access to a nest site on their lease allotment where two curlews were tagged. Walsh, who's a member the Conservancy's Matador grassbank, led them to another nest that he discovered while moving cattle on to the Matador Ranch, where another five birds were tagged. In fact, most nests were discovered in recently grazed pastures.

According to Walsh, "The herd just sort of separated as they came to a nest. They just walked around it."

Long-billed curlew numbers crashed in the 1800’s due to hunting. Conservation efforts helped restore the populations, but once again, curlews are in decline. Destruction of their grassland habitat as well as development on their wintering grounds are the main causes, but effective curlew conservation requires more understanding of the movement and habitat needs of these captivating birds.

According to the recent "State of the Birds of the United Statesgrassland birds are the fastest and most consistently declining group in North America.  The loss of so many of these lovely birds is directly tied to the disappearance of grasslands. Only about 2% of native grasslands that existed in the early 1800s still remain.  As the site of the greatest expanse of mixed grass prairie in the nation, Montana remains a beacon of hope. 

The Conservancy in Montana has been a leader in grassland conservation; working with public agencies and private landowners on pioneering conservation that restores and maintains grasslands for birds, at the same time retaining profitable ranch operations. 

Check out what our neighbors in Idaho are up to


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