CURLEW (Fr. Courlis or Corlieu), a name given to two birds, of whose cry it is an imitation, both belonging to the group Limicolae, but possessing very different habits and features.

1. The long-billed curlew, or simply curlew of most British writers, the Numenius arquata of ornithologists, is one of the largest of the family Scolopacidae, or snipes and allied forms. It is common on the shores of the United Kingdom and most parts of Europe, seeking the heaths and moors of the interior and more northern countries in the breeding-season, where it lays its four brownish-green eggs, suffused with cinnamon markings, in an artless nest on the ground. In England it has been ascertained to breed in Cornwall and in the counties of Devon, Dorset, Salop, and Derby—though sparingly. In Yorkshire it is more numerous, and thence to the extreme north of Scotland, as well as throughout Ireland, it is, under the name of whaup, familiar to those who have occasion to traverse the wild and desolate tracts that best suit its habits. So soon as the young are able to shift for themselves, both they and their parents resort to the sea-shore or mouths of rivers, from the muddy flats of which they at low tide obtain their living, and, though almost beyond any other birds wary of approach, form an object of pursuit to numerous gunners. While leading this littoral life the food of the curlew seems to consist of almost anything edible that presents itself. It industriously probes the mud or sand in quest of the worms that lurk therein, and is also active in seeking for such crustaceans and molluscs as can be picked up on the surface, while vegetable matter as well has been found in its stomach. During its summer-sojourn on the moorlands insects and berries, when they are ripe, enter largely into its diet. In bulk the curlew is not less than a crow, but it looks larger still from its long legs, wings and neck. Its bill, from 5 to 7 in. in length, and terminating in the delicate nervous apparatus common to all birds of its family, is especially its most remarkable feature. Its plumage above is of a drab colour, streaked and mottled with very dark brown; beneath it is white, while the flight-quills are of a brownish black.

Nearly allied to the curlew, but smaller and with a more northern range, is the whimbrel (N. phaeopus), called in some parts jack-curlew, from its small size; May-fowl, from the month in which it usually arrives; and titterel, from one of its cries.[1] This so much resembles the former in habit and appearance that no further details need be given of it. In the countries bordering on the Mediterranean occurs a third species (N. tenuirostris). Some fifteen other species, or more, have been described, but it is probable that this number is too great. The genus Numenius is almost cosmopolitan. In North America three very easily recognized species are found—the first (N. longirostris) closely agreeing with the European curlew, but larger and with a longer bill; the second (N. hudsonicus) representing the British whimbrel; and the third (N. borealis), which has several times found its way to Britain, very much less in size—indeed the smallest of the genus. All these essentially agree with the species of the Old World in habit; but it is remarkable that the American birds can be easily distinguished by the rufous colouring of their axillary feathers—a feature which is also presented by the American godwits (Limosa).

2. The curlew of inlanders, or stone-curlew—called also, by some writers, from its stronghold in England, the Norfolk plover, and sometimes the thick-knee—is usually classed among the Charadriidae, but it offers several remarkable differences from the more normal plovers. It is the Charadrius oedicnemus of Linnaeus, the C. scolopax of Sam. Gottl. Gmelin, and the Oedicnemus crepitans of K. J. Temminck. With much the same cry as that of the Numenii, only uttered in a far sweeter tone, it is as fully entitled to the name of curlew as the bird most commonly so called. In England it is almost solely a summer visitor, though an example will occasionally linger throughout a mild winter; and is one of the few birds whose distribution is affected by geological formation, since it is nearly limited to the chalk-country—the open spaces of which it haunts, and its numbers have of late years been sensibly diminished by their inclosure. The most barren spots in these districts, even where but a superficial coating of light sand and a thin growth of turf scarcely hide the chalk below, supply its needs; though at night (and it chiefly feeds by night) it resorts to moister and more fertile places. Its food consists of snails, coleopterous insects, and earth-worms, but larger prey, as a mouse or a frog, is not rejected. Without making the slightest attempt at a nest, it lays its two eggs on a level spot, a bare fallow being often chosen. These are not very large, and in colour so closely resemble the sandy, flint-strewn surface that their detection except by a practised eye is difficult. The bird, too, trusts much to its own drab colouring to elude observation, and, on being disturbed, will frequently run for a considerable distance and then squat with outstretched neck so as to become almost invisible. In such a case it may be closely approached, and its large golden eye, if it do not pass for a tuft of yellow lichen, is perhaps the first thing that strikes the searcher. As autumn advances the stone-curlew gathers in large flocks, and then is as wary as its namesake. Towards October these take their departure, and their survivors return, often with wonderful constancy, to their beloved haunts. In size this species exceeds any other European plover, and looks even still larger than it is. The bill is short, blunt, and stout; the head large, broad, and flat at the top; the wings and legs long—the latter presenting the peculiarity of a singular enlargement of the upper part of the tarsus, whence the names Oedicnemus and Thick-knee have been conferred. The toes are short and fleshy, and the hind-toe is wanting. This bird seems to have been an especial favourite with Gilbert White, in whose classical writings mention of it is often made. Its range extends to North Africa and India. Five other species of Oedicnemus from Africa have also been described as distinct. Australia possesses a very distinct species (O. grallarius), and the genus has two members in the Neotropical Region (O. bistriatus and O. superciliaris). An exaggerated form of Oedicnemus is found in Aesacus, of which two species have been described, one (A. recurvirostris) from the Indian, and the other (A. magnirostris) from the northern parts of the Australian region.  (A. N.) 

  1. The name spowe (cf. Icelandic Spói) also seems to have been anciently given to this bird (see Stevenson’s Birds of Norfolk, ii. 201).