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Little curlew

The aptly named Little Curlew (Numenius minutus), is the smallest of the Curlew speciesIts long neck and upright posture give it an elegant appearance as it walks through the grasslands it inhabits on its slender blue-grey legs. Its upper body is speckled with buff, brown and black feathers, whilst its lower body has a paler buff plumage. The bill is shorter and straighter than the scimitar-like bill synonymous of the Eurasian Curlew. Although there are nine species of Curlew, the Little Curlew is most closely related and bares the closest resemblance to the Eskimo Curlew, which is believed to be extinct.  

Little Curlew

Ecology and migration  

Despite their small stature, the Little Curlew is known to travel long distances during its migration. Endemic to the East Asian Australasian Flyway, the majority of the Little Curlew population spends winter in Australia. Once April hits, the birds head back to their breeding grounds in north-eastern Siberia to breed from late May to early August. First discovered in Siberia nearly 150 years ago, not much is known about the Little Curlew's breeding grounds, due to a combination of highly scattered nesting sites and difficult terrain in the region. It is understood that river valleys, dry mountain slopes or grassy clearings within dwarf Birch and Lark woodland are favored for nesting sites.  

Between the breeding and non-breeding grounds, the Little Curlew is known to make stopovers in different locations of varying habitat type. For their migration south to Australia, the birds travel in groups as small as four to as large as 300, passing over the Siberian Stepps, Russia, parts of Northern China and Mongolia. They use these stopover sites to feed on terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, providing them with the energy to reach their winter destination. On their return journey to Siberia from Australia, the Little Curlew has been known to stopover in a variety of locations including Japan, Lombok, the Philippines, Indonesia and parts of China such as the Yellow River Delta.  

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Images from IUCN website

Their non-breeding and stopover sites consist of a variety of habitats including dry grassland, cultivated fields, freshwater margins and coastal mudflats and marshes. It is not uncommon to see them on highly managed grass sites such as airfields and sports grounds.  

Threats and Conservation 

Data on the Little Curlew's population status is lacking; however, the population has been classed as stable on the IUCN Red List. Despite this, there are a number of threats that face the Little Curlew at all stages of their migration. This includes the hunting of birds nesting near human settlements, loss of habitat due to urbanisation, increased human disturbance, and finally the impact of climate change due to sea level rise and drying landscapes.  

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Currently there is no large-scale conservation plan for the Little Curlew; as with other migratory shorebirds on the East Asian and Australasian Flyway they traverse many countries during their migration which makes conservation efforts more complicated. Satellite tagging has been used in the past to gain a better understanding of the Little Curlew's migration routes, but more data is needed to get a clearer picture of their population status and fledging success. If this information was identified, it could help to create a future conservation plan for the Little Curlew. 

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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. 

Click here to read our blog post about Far Eastern Curlews.

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