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Eastern curlew

Eastern curlew  Photo: A McDougall, NPSR

Eastern curlew Photo: A McDougall, NPSR

Common name: eastern curlew

Scientific name: Numenius madagascariensis

Family: Scolopacidae (curlews, sandpipers, snipes and godwits)

Conservation status: The eastern curlew is listed as Endangered in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992). Nationally the curlew is listed as Critically Endangered and is identified as a 'Listed Migratory Species' (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). It is also identified as a migratory species in appendices to the Bonn Convention, and in JAMBA (Japan/Australia Migratory Bird Agreement), CAMBA (China/Australia Migratory Bird Agreement) and ROKAMBA (Republic of Korea/Australia Migratory Bird Agreement). It is ranked as a low priority under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection Back on Track species prioritisation framework.


The eastern curlew is the largest wading bird that visits Australia, with females (the larger of the sexes) reaching up to 66cm tall. It has an elongated, elegantly curved bill for probing in mudflats, and long olive-grey legs that enable them to wade in boggy areas. The eastern curlew is pale brown above and below with finely streaked black-brown mottling over their head, neck and breast and heavy dark brown mottling on their back. Juveniles resemble adults but are paler with finer streaking on the breast and their bill is initially much shorter, slowly growing to adult length. The eastern curlew has a mournful, haunting yet melodious call and a deliberate, steady walk. This species is wary and quick to take flight, usually needing only a short take-off run.

Habitat and distribution

Eastern curlews  Photo: A McDougall, NPSR

Eastern curlews Photo: A McDougall, NPSR

The eastern curlew is found on sheltered coasts, mangrove swamps, bays, harbours and lagoons that contain mudflats and sandflats, often with beds of seagrass. At high tide, when their feeding habitat becomes inundated, they move to saltpans, sand dunes and other open areas where they roost above the high water. For this reason, the eastern curlew needs two types of habitat in order to survive, one within the tidal zone, and one above it.

The eastern curlew is found in coastal regions in the north-east and south of Australia, including Tasmania, and is scattered in other coastal areas. On route from their Northern Hemisphere breeding grounds, they are commonly seen in Japan, Korea and Borneo with small numbers visiting New Zealand.

Life history and behaviour

The eastern curlew is a migratory species, moving south by day and night, usually along coastlines, departing breeding areas in the Northern Hemisphere from mid-July to late September. The eastern curlew flies along the East Asian Australasian Flyway arriving in north-western and eastern Australia mostly in August. Large numbers arrive on the east coast from September to November. Most leave again from late February to March. Eastern curlews breed in Russia and north-eastern China on swampy moors and boggy marshes.

Eastern curlew chicks attempt their first migration when they are only six to eight weeks old, after the adult birds have already departed. These chicks inherit from their parents an instinctive sense of distance and direction required to navigate their migratory paths.

During low tide the eastern curlew uses its long probing bill to fish out worms and crustaceans from deep mud. The species forages by day and night stalking slowly on sandy and muddy flats, using its bill to make rapid vertical exploratory probes, then a sudden deep thrust, sometimes immersing its head to grab the food.

The eastern curlew will boost its body weight by between 40% and 70% before migrating and will lose all of this added weight within two or three days of continuous flying.

Threatening processes

To successfully complete their migration route of approximately 10,000km, the flight path of the eastern curlew must include a chain of wetlands that enable them to rest, feed and replenish their fat reserves. The loss of even small areas of wetland on these 'flyways' can be devastating to the eastern curlew as they might not have the strength and energy required to complete their migration. Major threats to wetlands are urban development, flood mitigation, agriculture and pollution.

Population studies for the eastern curlew estimate that this species has declined by approximately 58% between 1995 and 2010 (Studds et. al. 2017). This decline was largely linked to the reliance of these curlew on the feeding areas in the Yellow Sea during migration. These feeding areas in the Yellow Sea have become degraded through environmental pollution, reclaimed for tidal power plants and barrages, industrial use and urban expansion and general human disturbance

Waders are very easily disturbed by activity that can interrupt their breeding, feeding or resting. For example, causing an eastern curlew to take flight represents a significant disturbance as they use critical energy that is required for migration and breeding. Disturbances, particularly repeated disturbances that occur before or after migration, are particularly damaging because, without sufficient energy reserves, they may be unable to complete their migration or breed. The main disturbances to eastern curlews are from human activities such as driving on beaches and sand dunes, and unrestrained domestic dogs.

Recovery actions

  • Work with governments along the East Asian – Australasian Flyway to prevent destruction of key migratory staging sites.
  • Develop and implement an International Single Species Action Plan for eastern curlew with all range states.
  • Protect important habitat areas (wetlands and sand dunes) from urban and industrial development and pollution.
  • Restrict or control access to areas used by these birds.
  • Increase public awareness about the effects of beach/sand dune driving.
  • Educate dog owners to restrain their animals in habitat areas.
  • Implement control measures for feral animals.
  • Manage important sites to identify, control and reduce the spread of invasive species.
  • Monitor the progress of recovery, including the effectiveness of management actions and the need to adapt them if necessary.
  • Action relevant recommendations in the Draft Threat Abatement Plan for the Impacts of Marine Debris on Vertebrate Marine Species (2017).

What can you do to help this species?

  • Avoid driving or operating all forms of vehicles and recreational devices on beaches and mudflats, especially above the high tide mark where the eastern curlew roosts.
  • Keep domestic animals such as dogs under control and well away from feeding/roosting sites.
  • If fishing from a sandbar, choose the opposite end to where the birds are gathered.
  • Consider how your actions may disturb the eastern curlew. For example, where you set up camp or go for a stroll.
  • Dispose of rubbish appropriately - remember that rubbish and pollutants discarded on the land often end up in waterways.

Related information

Department of Environment. 2015. Approved national conservation advice for Numenius madagascariensis Eastern Curlew. (PDF) Department of Environment, Canberra.

Department of the Environment and Energy (DOEE). 2017. Numenius madagascariensis Eastern Curlew. Species Profile and Threats Database. DOEE, Canberra.

Department of the Environment and Energy. 2017. Draft Threat Abatement Plan for the Impacts of Marine Debris on Vertebrate Marine Species (2017). Commonwealth of Australia.

Department of the Environment and Heritage. 2006. Wildlife Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds, DEH, Canberra.

Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. 2017. Shorebirds.

Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. 2017. Littering and illegal dumping

Studds C.E, Kendall B.E, Murray N.J, Wilson H.B, Rogers D.I, Clemend R.S, Gosbell K, Hassell C.J, Jessop R, Melville D.S, Milton D.A, Minton C.D.T, Possingham H.P, Riehen A.C, Straw P, Woehler E.J and Fuller R.A. 2017. Rapid population decline in migratory shorebirds relying on Yellow Sea tidal mudflats as stopover sites. Nature Communications 8.

Last updated
11 September 2017