Curlew Reprise

In curlew terms, we’ve come to the end of the breeding season. Many birds have already faded away to the shore, and it’s surprisingly hard to see how they did. I know that all of my curlews failed this year, but only because I spent hours watching them. Even then, it was difficult to interpret the precise outcome of each nesting attempt, and I made all manner of mistakes.

After multiple failures, the system of pairs and territories will collapse. Birds fall back into groups again. The breeding grounds often provide good feeding, so there’s no immediate hurry to leave. If there are enough curlews to generate a quorum, they might hang around for weeks after the last egg or chick is lost. Some of the male birds are still hepped up on hormones, so they might even display now and again. Others may seem to speculate new breeding territories well into July, and we have to remember that birds aren’t looking ahead with a plan or some hope for the best. They have no objective, just cues and hormonal commands. It doesn’t mean a thing, so it’s easy to read them wrong and presume that the songs are sounds of success.

In working to publicise the curlew’s decline, I realise that these birds are victims of their own success. Here in Galloway, most farmers and land managers remember the days when curlews were super-abundant. It’s a hard sell to convince people that curlews need additional care in these dark and declining days. Everybody loves these birds, but you don’t have to worry about curlews because there will always be more of them. Talking about curlews to a farmer near Castle Douglas this year, I explained that a nest on his land was the only nest in the parish. I could tell that he didn’t believe me. There are always some on the moss, he said. But those birds have been gone for five years.

Even in places where curlews return in good numbers, displays and high-falutin calls are meaningless unless chicks are hatched and grow to fledge. There is no signage or text-message notification service to let you know how the birds are doing. You have to infer that information from what you see, and most farmers are too busy to look closely. Working from a baseline of abundance, there is a general assumption that all is well; if you hear curlews calling, they’re probably looking after chicks because that’s what they always do. But I think it’s time to reverse that wisdom; I think it’s time to stop making the inference and work instead on the basis that if you cannot see chicks, you do not have them – the new baseline is failure until proved otherwise.

I found a dead curlew at midsummer’s eve. Something had grabbed it, puncturing the breast and arse-end with a puckle of wounds. The bird had flown on to wither and die soon afterwards, and I found the body lying meekly in a sheep track, dead for the day or perhaps a little longer. If I had found that bird ten years ago, I would have been desperately sad. But standing in the dusk and the dance of a million moths, I didn’t feel anything much. It looked strange and rather out of place, like some exotic migrant blown off course and doomed to live in pathetic exile. I sat beside it for a while. It was eleven o’clock, and a hare came up from the hawkbit. Roe barked, and roe barking was the sound of this midsummer, just as bracken was the smell.

And not wanting to waste a fortunate find, I went against my better judgement and placed the bird inside my bag. It lay there as I cycled home, strange to the glen and gloaming fields as a banana. Now it’s in my freezer, and that is the best I can do for conservation nowadays.

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