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This species was on the 2002 WatchList, but is not on the 2007 WatchList. Please refer to http://web1.audubon.org/science/species/watchlist/techReport.php for information on the 2007 WatchList.
The Whimbrel is the world's widest ranging curlew, nesting in the arctic regions of both the Old and New Worlds and wintering on coasts of southern North America through South America and, in the Old World, on the coasts of southern Asia south to Australia, and Africa. It is a large brownish shorebird with its most striking feature being its long down-curved bill. Whimbrels suffered from some of the same problems that led to the extinction of the smaller but related Eskimo Curlew and more recently have shown declines that may be related to destruction of coastal wetlands along its winter range.
A large, relatively short-legged shorebird with a long down-curved bill, striped head, brown speckled upperparts and light underparts with streaking on the neck and upper breast. The underwings are light. Calls include a tittering "bibibibibibibi" outside of the breeding season and a "cur-lew" note during migration. Juveniles are buffier with more light feather edgings on the back and wings.
During the breeding season, North American populations of Whimbrels occur in two separate areas of the Arctic. One is located from the coast of Alaska across to the Yukon territory. The other population breeds south and west of the Hudson Bay from northeast Manitoba to north Ontario. The species begins migrating south from its breeding grounds in July when individuals may be seen in coastal areas of North America. Whimbrels winter along coast from North Carolina and California south through Central and South America. Some birds even make it to the Galapagos and Falkland Islands. The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan places this species in the category of shorebirds that have shown to be in significant decline. The Hudson bay population has declined from an estimated 42,500 in 1973 to only 17,000 today.
The Whimbrel breeds in subartic and alpine tundra and taiga. Its habitat ranges from dry heath uplands to dwarf shrub, and mossy lowlands. In Manitoba, it nests in wet taiga bogs that have scattered, stunted black spruce. In Alaska, it nests in flat, wet, dwarf-shrubs that have lots of berry shrubs. It fattens up during the fall migration at coastal and terrestrial habitats such as heaths and oyster banks. During the winter, it forages in tidal flats, mangroves and a variety of other coastal habitats. This curlew has a broad diet but its main food is marine invertebrates. Crabs are a favorite prey of wintering birds. In the fall, when staging for migration in the Canadian Maritimes and coastal Maine, Whimbrels eat berries. Berries are pulled off a branch with the tips of the bill. The bird then flips its head back and swallows. Insects are eaten in the same way. Breeding occurs May through July. Females usually lay four eggs in a depression they scraped out of the ground and lined with leaves. After 22-28 days of incubation, the eggs hatch. Young take about another month to fly.
The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan lists Whimbrel as a "Species of High Concern," based on population trend, relative abundance, threats on non-breeding grounds, and non-breeding distribution. Before the Migratory Birds Convention of 1916, sports and market hunters had greatly diminished Whimbrel populations. While they are still hunted in some areas in South America, the loss of wetland habitat is their greatest current challenge. Environmental contaminants like cadmium may also be a problem.
Although no conservation actions have been focused on this species, efforts aimed at protecting and restoring coastal habitats used by Whimbrels as staging or wintering areas should benefit the species. This should include especially wintering areas in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America where destruction of mangrove habitats and other important coastal wintering habitats is increasing. Researchers need to better pinpoint which sites are important and how the birds are using them. Many sites are threatened by pollution which can destroy or degrade the prey base required to sustain the species.
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of the Whimbrel as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program and how you can help, visit: http://www.audubon.org/iba/
Audubon is the U.S. representative of the global BirdLife International alliance. Our BirdLife partners in Canada, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America are developing Important Bird Areas programs to identify and conserve critical habitats that support Whimbrels and many other species. For more information on BirdLife IBA efforts throughout the Americas visit: http://www.birdlife.net/sites/index.cfm
Information on where Whimbrels occur in migration and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. Help in monitoring this and other species by reporting your sightings to eBird. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world's first comprehensive on-line bird monitoring program: http://www.audubon.org/bird/ebird/index.html
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the long-term status of wintering populations of Whimbrels and other bird species. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Whimbrels. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for the Whimbrel and many other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Shorebird Sister Schools Program is educating children and adults about shorebirds including the Whimbrel. For more details on this project and to get involved visit http://sssp.fws.gov.
Brown, S., C. Hickey, B. Harrington, and R. Gill, eds. 2001. The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, 2nd ed. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Manomet, MA
Skeel, Margaret A. and Elizabeth P. Mallory. 1996. Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) In The Birds of North America, No. 219 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.