Long-Billed Curlew Study

The Big Picture

The Long-billed curlew is the largest shorebird in North America but also holds the unfortunate distinction of being one of the continent’s most threatened shorebird species. Breeding in the short- or mixed-grassland habitats of the western United States and Canada, the long-billed curlew migrates west and south to California, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, in the winter. Habitat degradation and cultivation are thought to threaten the curlew’s breeding and wintering grounds. World Wildlife Fund considers curlews a prime indicator of the health of the mixed-grass prairie and thus in conjunction with several partners they have launched a three-year study of the species’ migrations.

Progress to Date

Scientists have equipped seven long-billed curlews with solar-powered satellite transmitters in Phillips County, Montana in order to analyze their migratory routes as well as use of their breeding, wintering and stopover habitat in order to identify critical areas and potential threats to these areas. Initial results showed that several birds undertook an epic journey from Montana breeding grounds to the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico, another of WWF’s priority grassland regions, including one flight of over 1700 miles in approximately 24 hours. Other birds wintered in Texas and the Gulf Coast of Mexico. This previously undocumented migration highlights the interconnectivity of North American grasslands and will provide scientists with critical information to address threats throughout the species’ range.

The Montana Long-billed Curlew Project is a cooperative one between World Wildlife Fund, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, The Nature Conservancy, University of California–Davis, the U.S. Geological Surveyand local ranchers. World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains program is also collaborating with WWF’s Chihuahuan Desert Program and the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon. In October 2009, these partners deployed three additional satellite tags on curlews in their wintering grounds in that region.

Next Steps

The recent expansion of American Prairie Reserve (APR), which encompasses known nesting sites of long-billed curlews, makes it likely that birds nesting on the APR will be among the eight additional curlews to be satellite tagged in Montana as the study continues. This project will run for three years, providing important information about these previously undocumented migrations and insight into the health of grassland ecosystems for long-billed curlews.