Scientists look for surviving Eskimo curlew birds

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:34pm EDT

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Federal scientists are on the lookout for the Eskimo curlew, as they work to determine if the elusive shorebird last seen two decades ago still exists.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is seeking any information about the Eskimo curlew, a tundra-nesting bird once abundant over the skies of North and South America, which was nearly hunted into oblivion by the mid-20th century.

The agency, which made its announcement in the Federal Register on Wednesday, will review whether the bird should continue to be classified as endangered or formally designated as extinct.

The last sighting confirmed by the Fish and Wildlife Service was in Nebraska in 1987, said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the agency.

An unconfirmed sighting -- of an adult and a chick -- was recorded in 1983 in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Woods said.

The Eskimo curlew population once numbered hundreds of thousands, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is the smallest of four species of Western Hemisphere curlews, and is known for its long migration route from Arctic tundra breeding grounds to wintering lands in South America.

But the birds died off in drastic numbers due to overhunting, the loss of prairie habitat that was converted from grasslands to agriculture and the extinction of a type of grasshopper that made up much of their diet.

Most were gone by the beginning of the 20th century, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite its scarcity, the Eskimo curlew is well-known to bird lovers.

It was the subject of a classic short novel, "Last of the Curlews," that chronicled the life of a lonely Eskimo curlew waiting on the tundra for a mate and, finding none, flying solo on the long fall migration. The 1954 book was adapted into a children's animated movie in 1972.

The wildlife inquiry, to be conducted by the service's Alaska scientists, is the first such formal review of the Eskimo curlew under the Endangered Species Act, Woods said. The bird was listed as endangered prior to passage of the act. such reviews are typically completed within 12 months.

Brendan Cummings, senior attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said he hopes the bird continues to be listed as endangered and not written off as extinct.

Continued listing will cost little and could help protect far-north habitat home to other birds and wildlife, he said.

"While I have my doubts, I think it would be premature to close the coffin lid on the species," Cummings said.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Greg McCune)

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