The Artdog Image of Interest, Image 3 of a planned series of four by John James Audubon

Eskimo Curlew, 1833, by John James Audubon

In my opinion, this is one of the weirder compositions Audubon produced. Although he always had to work from dead specimens, having either shot them himself (then posed them propped up on wires) or having received skins (as with the Bachman’s Warbler last week), he almost never portrayed them as dead, unless shown as prey of an avian predator.

However, in this one the female is laid out on her back as if shot. Some writers believe this is to display the feather patterns of the underside–but it is unusual. It’s also a bit of a weird coincidence that he should choose to do this with a species now feared to be extinct.

Flocks of Eskimo Curlew, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

It is ironic that this was once one of the most numerous of shorebird species. In the late 1800s, as many as 2,000,000 birds were reported killed in a year. They were reputed to be delicious, but settlers along their migratory route between South America (Brazil, Argentina, and Chile) and the tundra of Labrador and southeast Canada only began to hunt them intensively after the Passenger Pigeon had declined to near-extinction (clearly a major opportunity to learn from experience was ignored, there).

Eskimo Curlew in field, 1962, by Donald Bleitz, held in the archives of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, California, USA

Don Bleitz (a Californian who pioneered the fast photo business, but whose heart belonged to bird photography) captured four photos of a living Eskimo Curlew in 1962, on Galveston Island in Texas; to date, they are the last known photos of living birds. You can see all four in a slideshow on Arkive.

In 1963, a specimen was shot in Barabados by someone who didn’t know what it was. In 1981, David R. Blankinship and Kirke A. King documented a sighting of 23 birds believed to be Eskimo Curlews on Atkinson Island in Galveston Bay (Texas), but they didn’t manage to get photos (while we regret the lack of photos, we thank the gentlemen for not shooting them in the other sense!).

More recent sightings of Eskimo Curlews have been reported, but not confirmed. Thus, while it is possible that small populations still exist, the species definitely deserves its Critically Endangered listing, and it may be extinct.

A drawer full of stuffed, tagged Eskimo curlew "cabinet skins"from the Natural History Museum of London.
Sadly, all we may have left of the Eskimo Curlew today are “cabinet skins.” (© The Natural History Museum, London, via Martin Reid).

In this case, a whole barrage of critical disasters befell this species, and contrived to wipe it out. Aside from the insanely intensive over-hunting in the late 1800s, predation and disease also attacked them, the spread of agriculture led to habitat loss, and a key element in their springtime diet, the Rocky Mountain Locust, also was eradicated. These poor birds had little chance, despite their once-massive numbers.

IMAGES: Many thanks to The New York State Historical Museum and Library for the photo of Audubon’s artwork; to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, via Champagnewhiskey, for the engraving of the flocks of Eskimo Curlew; unfortunately, I was unable to find a better (or larger) image of this piece; to Arkive and the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology for Eskimo Curlew in field, © Donald Bleitz, 1962, held in the archives of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, California, USA; and to Martin Reid, for providing me with a better image, and helping me improve the credit information for the “cabinet skins” photo © The Natural History Museum, London).