Long-Billed Curlew: Alameda’s Candlestick Bird

A Long-billed Curlew eats crabs and other small crustaceans.
Rick Lewis

Long-Billed Curlew: Alameda’s Candlestick Bird

Patricia Gannon

The incredibly eye-catching Long-billed Curlew is North America’s largest shorebird. It also has the longest bill of any of our shorebirds, a disproportionally long bill that curves downward. The female is larger than the male with a much longer bill. This Curlew’s long neck and under-parts are light cinnamon in color, while the crown of its small head is streaked with brown. Because of its lengthy bill it was nicknamed the “Candlestick Bird,” as many candlesticks are extremely tall. In fact, Candlestick Point and Candlestick Park are named after the Long-billed Curlew.

One of the earliest breeding shorebirds, it arrives in the Great Basin (a large expanse of desert valleys and mountains covering Nevada and several western states) by mid- March, breeding in April, May and early June. The male displays over nesting territory, performing an elaborate courtship dance with spectacular fast and looping flights, fluttering higher and then gliding lower while making loud ringing calls.

Once mated, a male Long-billed Curlew will fashion several nest sites, each a small scrape in the ground, usually in a somewhat dry area, close to a rock, shrub or other object. The female then selects her favorite among them, lines the scrape with twigs, grasses, leaves, and sometimes adds a slight rim around the edge. She then lays eggs, usually four, which vary in color from white to olive. Both parents incubate the eggs for 27 to 30 days.

The chicks are precocial (capable of moving around on their own soon after hatching) and leave the nest shortly after they hatch. The chicks start to fly between 32 and 45 days later. Though both parents look after the young, the female usually departs early for the wintering grounds, leaving the chicks in the care of the male. Known as a short distance migrant, after it is done breeding the Long-billed Curlew travels to the west coast of North America, from northern Mexico to northern California, including Alameda.

Long-billed Curlews feed in flocks. Their long, down-curved bills are perfectly adapted for probing in the mud for burrowing prey such as earthworms, mollusks and crabs. They also eat grasshoppers, beetles and other insects and occasionally they will eat the eggs of other birds.

The east coast population has declined as its grassland breeding grounds have been converted to agriculture. Similarly, on the west coast, agriculture, pesticides and urban development have reduced the Long-billed Curlew’s habitat.

The mudflats and wetlands of Alameda provide a perfect hangout for these very photogenic, long-legged, long-billed birds. Walking along Alameda’s shoreline you are sure to see Long-billed Curlews and their smaller cousins, Marbled Godwits during the fall and winter. They entertain us as they probe their long, curved bills in the sand and mud while towering over the other birds that grace our coast.

Alamedans are privileged to live in an area with such an abundance of wildlife: birds, mammals and amphibians. We need to do our part to ensure that our little niche continues to thrive and support our wildlife for future generations.

Patricia Gannon is a member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society and the secretary of its Alameda Conservation Committee, Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve.