Wednesday 6 March 2013

Last of the Curlews

Since Wader Quest is all about disappearing waders a short time ago I decided to read Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth.

I am not one for anthropomorphism, attributing birds and animals with human emotions and reactions, but Mr. Bodsworth does a good job at making the book readable and interesting by referring to the bird's instinct an innate urges rather than any rational thought process, which I for one found pleasing.

It tells the story of one of the last Eskimo Curlews that has spent a number of breeding seasons alone on his northern territory. He makes the long migration to South America and miraculously finds a mate. But, on the return migration, almost inevitably she is shot and the hapless bird finds himself once more alone.

It was not however the story itself that disturbed me so much as the harrowing snippets from journals which appear between each chapter that describe the mindless slaughter of these birds.

Graphic descriptions of people killing indiscriminately until they could kill no more, mounds of dead birds left abandoned while the 'hunters' went to kill yet more birds leaving those they had killed to rot.

One passage conjured an image in my mind that disturbed me more than most:

"In one specific instance a single shot from an old muzzle-loading shot gun into a flock of these curlews, as they veered by the hunter, brought down 28 birds at once, while for the next half mile every now and then a fatally wounded bird would drop to the ground dead."

The Eskimo Curlew went the same way as the Passenger Pigeon, you'd have thought that they would have learned from that tragedy, but even though people on the prairies saw parallels, even naming the curlew 'prairie pigeon' accordingly, they could not control their lust to kill.

The result was, as we all now know, that this level of slaughter was not sustainable and with the added pressure of habitat loss on the prairies even after hunting ceased the population was unable to recover.  We current day wader watchers cannot add this bird to the list of birds we would one day like to have the opportunity to see alive. The Slender-billed Curlew went the same way, if not in the same manner, lets make sure this doesn't happens now to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

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