Candlestick Birds Rare in Piney Woods

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Long-bill curlew rarely lands in Louisiana
Louisiana Ecrivisse
Boyce LA

North America's largest and longest billed shorebird, the Longbilled Curlew flies over our piney woods but rarely lands in the region. It spends the breeding season in the grasslands of the Great Basin and Great Plains and its winters along our coasts. Weighing in a 1-2 pounds with females larger than males, these birds have 4.5-8.5 inches long bills. They are 20-26 long with 24-26 inch wingspans.

These ungainly birds stand tall. The body is a rich buff color with tinges of cinnamon and pink.

The small heads are uniform in color. The under wings are bright cinnamon that is easy to see as they fly away from or over an observer. In flight, curlews alternate between flapping and gliding.

The long bills gave these curlews the common names of candlestick birds and sickle bill birds.

Some sources contend that Candlestick Point on the coast near San Francisco, California is named for the flocks that wintered there. However, other sources suggest the name originates from a distinct, candle stick shaped rock formation or, perhaps, the masts of sailing vessels sunk in the adjacent bay.

It's impossible to miss the Longbilled Curlew's lengthy, decurved bill. The female's is longer than the male's and is a different shape. The female's is flatter on top with a more distinct curve at its tip. The male's is gently curved throughout its length. These long bills permit the birds to probe into the soil for earthworms on the breeding grounds and into the mud and sand for crabs, shrimp, crawfish, and other tasty invertebrates. They do, however, feed on insects including grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and crustaceans that have the misfortune of being found above ground.

Longbilled Curlews have to fly over the piney woods to go to and from breeding and wintering grounds.

A few have been reported on the ground along the Red River, stopping, apparently to seek food.

They have a very distinctive call described as "cur lee, cur lee" which can be sometimes heard as they fly overhead.

Once far more numerous than now, Longbilled Curlew numbers have declined for two reasons.

First, they are tasty and easy to kill. In fact, they were eliminated by hunting at Candlestick Point and have only recently returned. Second, the farmer's plow destroyed much of its prairie breeding grounds. Still, conservation efforts ensure that a dedicated effort to find them along the Louisiana and Texas coasts will be successful.

After complex courtship behavior, eggs are laid in nests that are scrapes in ground roughly 8 inches across and 3 inches deep. These lined with various materials including grass, bark, leaves, twigs, pebbles, and other dried materials including dried animal droppings. Both members of the pair share incubation duties. Both birds aggressively defend their nest. The female abandons the brood to its mate two to three weeks after hatching. However, researchers have found that the same pair may form again the following breeding season.

Longbilled Curlews can be confused with Whimbrels, another large, curvebilled shorebird. The bill of the Whimbrel is decurved and almost as long as that of the male Longbilled Curlew.

However, a Whimbrel's head has a striped crown. Above color is grayer brown than the Longbilled Curlew. It is a buff color below without the distinct cinnamon coloring of the Longbilled Curlew. Call differs as well being short, rapid whistles "heeheeheehee".