I met a man who used to keep curlews in captivity. It’s not an easy business because the birds are edgy and hard to settle, but he took that as a challenge.
After many years of trial and error, he slowly taught himself how to raise young curlews in pens and then settled them into aviaries when they’d grown up. This was in the 1970s at a time when nobody had ever managed to breed curlews in captivity, but soon this man was on course to separate his birds into breeding pairs. Success was almost within his grasp, and he prepared for the arrival of the first eggs.
It wasn’t to be. Most of his captive birds died just a few days before the eggs were laid. On the very cusp of success, the pairs turned on each other and killed themselves.
In a final test before commitment, curlews probe one another for weakness. I often watch the wild pairs in long and fearsome fights which unfold against the wide sky; I see that it’s no game. They scream and tumble, but there’s always relief in the cloud or the broad horizon. Only the strongest birds will stand a chance of breeding successfully, so it pays to know how fit your partner is. Weakness is weeded out, and the lesser birds bleed away to the sea to lick their wounds and try another year.
So pity the captives who are hemmed in by mesh. They’re scorched by the white heat of their own instincts and find themselves capable of murder. Pick them out of open country and the birds will self-destruct.
Curlews come to me as a fine distillation of rain and trailing cloud. But knowing this new truth about curlews reminds me how heavily a curlew will lean upon open skies; they cannot survive without them. Wide, hill-bound places are no more a choice than moonlight or the rush of rain. Space is a precondition and a failsafe against distortion.