The Far-Eastern curlew, Numenius madagascariensis, is the largest migratory shorebird in the world. Its iconic curved bill is well known across the many countries that span the East Asian and Australasian Flyway. Its famous call is similar to that of the Eurasian curlew, but noticeably deeper in tone. Despite its status as a well-loved bird for the people who live within its range, the Far-Eastern curlew has seen a dramatic decline in recent years due to a multitude of human induced factors.
Image credit: IUCN Redlist
A Long Journey Ahead
The Far-Eastern Curlew is a long-distance traveler, reaching up to 20,000 km on the round trip of its migration from breeding grounds to overwintering grounds and back. In order to undertake such an arduous journey, the Far-Eastern Curlew nearly doubles its weight before migration begins.
During the breeding season, the Far-Eastern Curlew can be found across parts of Northeastern Asia such as Siberia, Kamchatka, Mongolia and northern China. Their breeding habitats include marshy wetlands and lakeshores, where they forage for insects and berries.
When migrating between the breeding and over wintering grounds, the Far-Eastern Curlew passes the Yellow Sea region, whilst also making stop overs in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.
For the winter season, they are commonly found on the coast of Australia but have also been known to overwinter in other countries such as New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia. During the overwintering period, their habitat consists of beaches, estuaries and salt marshes where they feed on crabs, small mollusks and shrimp.
Although no young Eastern Curlew tracking has been done from the breeding grounds, it is believed the chicks may attempt their first migration soon after the adult birds have left, at around only eight weeks old. In order to do this, it is understood that the chicks have an inherent sense of direction and distance, providing them with the navigation skills necessary to make the tremendous journey.
A Species Under Threat
Once a thriving population, the Far-Eastern Curlew is now listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. According to the East Asian and Australasian Flyway Partnership, Eastern curlew numbers have declined by 81% in Australia over the past three decades. This led the Australian Government to class the birds as critically endangered, under the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act List of Threated Fauna.
The Far-Eastern curlew faces a multitude of human induced threats including habitat loss, habitat degradation, hunting and human disturbance.
Although habitat loss and degradation is occurring across the majority of its range, habitat loss in the Yellow Sea region is having a particular impact on the population. Many of the tidal mud flats used as stop over sites during the Eastern Curlews migration are being reclaimed, quickly reducing the area available for the Curlews to rest. Sea level rise as a result of anthropogenic climate change is also likely to have a long-term negative impact on the loss of intertidal habitats.
At their breeding grounds, human disturbance and hunting are two factors having a negative impact on the successful fledging of chicks, further contributing to a reduction in the numbers of the Far Eastern Curlew.
A future for Far-Eastern Curlew
As a result of their population decline, the East Asian and Australasian Flyway Far Eastern Curlew Taskforce has been created. Their goal is to restore the Far Eastern Curlew to a healthy population, so that it is no longer classed as endangered on the IUCN red list. The group is working on supporting countries within the Far-Eastern Curlews range to identify and reduce threats, develop an international action plan and work with range countries to deploy this action plan.
The Far-Eastern Curlew mirrors the plight of other Curlew species around the globe. An iconic bird, once a common sight, may disappear from the skies of the East Asian and Australasian Flyway if we are not careful. Thankfully there are dedicated people across Asia and Australasia working hard to ensure these magnificent birds return to a healthy population.
This blog post is part of a series highlighting the different Curlew species from around the world for World Curlew Day 2023. If you would like to learn more about World Curlew Day, please click here.