How to Know the Birds: No. 67, The Gentle Curlew
- What: Upland Sandpiper, Bartramia longicauda
- When: Saturday, May 28, 2022
- Where: County Road U, Yuma County, Colorado
“Let us be thankful that this gentle and lovely bird is no longer called Bartramian sandpiper.” Thus begins the account by Arthur Cleveland Bent in his magisterial Life Histories of the bird known today as the upland sandpiper. My immediate reaction, on first seeing Bent’s words, was that the great ornithologist was dissing the eponym. Bent was, after all, a sort of forerunner of the #BirdNames4Birds initiative, freely inveighing against bird names he found wanting. Another account in the Life Histories opens with the pronouncement that “[o]ldsquaws, or long-tailed ducks, as I should prefer to have them called,” are #AwesomeBirds. Close to a century later, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) did the deed and finally cancelled the oldsquaw.
In the case of the scolopacid, my first instinct missed the mark. “It is a sandpiper truly enough,” Bent allows, “but one that has adopted the haunts and many of the habits of the plovers.” He was, oof, bent out of shape not about the eponym, but, rather, about calling the bird a sandpiper.
Fair enough. Upland sandpipers never do the mudflats-and-sandbars thing. In Colorado, where I live, you look for them out in the sand sagebrush and blue grama, in the company of pronghorn and prairie-chickens.
A. C. Bent is one of my favorite ornithological writers, especially for the way he brings his subject matter to life. Bent knew his molts and plumages, his feather tracts and bare parts, his body masses and other morphometrics—did he ever! But he also had a keen sense for the je ne sais quoi of the living bird; and he ascribed the utmost importance to appreciating birds in a broad biological context.
I’m on Team A. C., in case it’s not already obvious. I totally get where Bent’s coming from with bird names in general; and, like Bent, I am gratified in the particular case of Bartramian sandpiper that that moniker has been retired. At the same time, I confess to being less than enthusiastic about upland plover, the appellation favored by Bent.
Late last month, on the first day of summer vacation, my daughter and I were iNatting the sand sagebrush and blue grama prairie of eastern Colorado. We were in the company of pronghorn and prairie-chickens, and, inevitably:
“What kind of bird is it?”
It is a sandpiper truly enough, we already know. Yet not of the vintage of a spotted sandpiper or solitary sandpiper, industriously working the edges of a fishing pond or a gravel bar in a creek; and certainly nothing like semipalmated sandpipers swarming the saltmarshes at low tide or purple sandpipers deftly avoiding being inundated in the surf.
But it’s not a plover, either. In appearance, and even more so in demeanor, it is utterly unlike a killdeer, the plover of the ABA area. It’s clearly different from the little Charadrius plovers, and it would take a mighty act of imagination to confuse it with one of the big Pluvialis plovers—even in their generally gray-brown winter plumages.
Enough beating around the bush. The bird is a curlew. Or, to be precise, it and the other curlews form a clade distinct from all the other species in the family Scolopacidae.
Knowing that the bird is a curlew provides a simple and direct answer to my daughter’s question, but it also gets at the heart of the deeper question I know she was asking: “What kind of bird is it, really?”
Suppose you were tasked with teaching someone how to identify the bird in question. The bird is just standing there, right in front of you. Like this:
You might start out by stating that the bird’s plumage is generally brown and stripey. Which it is. But which also well describes the greater prairie-chickens, vesper sparrows, and any of a number of other birds on the prairie.
Okay, what about the bare parts? It’s got long yellow legs and a long yellow bill, nearly straight but slightly drooping. We’ve worked our way to a fine description of the pectoral sandpiper, which this bird is not.
Let’s try a different approach. Let’s start off with some very basic biology. Here goes:
The bird is a curlew.
The other curlew in Colorado, the long-billed curlew, is almost as terrestrial as this species. If you want to find long-billed curlews in eastern Colorado at this time of year, I recommend searching the dry juniper woodlands of Las Animas County. You heard that right. Even our coastal curlew, the whimbrel, can be impressively terrestrial at certain times of the year; on the dry heathlands of Newfoundland, far from the crashing of ocean waves, you are likely to find flocks of whimbrels devouring crowberries and occasionally crossing paths with willow ptarmigan.
Curlews are terrestrial birds.
They’re also long-necked; their eerie flight songs combine stuttering notes with wild, wailing whistles; and we learn in The Sibley Guide that the outermost primary flight feather has a unique white shaft.
Knowing that a bird is a curlew relative isn’t just cocktail party trivia. It is, or it ought to be, central to identifying, understanding, and ultimately appreciating the bird in life.
I’ve been involved in various ways during much of my life with the production of print field guides, still the best way—even in this Age of the App—for teaching and learning about birds. And I think I’m well acquainted with pretty much all the debates about “best practices” for field guides: photos vs. illustrations; mnemonics vs. spectrograms; to capitalize or not to capitalize (and 4LCs!); eyebrow vs. supercilium (and what the heck is the malar anyhow?); and more. Believe it or not, I can go in either or both or all directions on the preceding, and on others like them. There are, however, a couple of points regarding field guide best practices about which I feel somewhat more strongly, especially in light of my experiences late last month along County Road U in Yuma County.
The first, which you’ve likely already pieced together, is that I favor field guides which hew closely to the linear sequence of the AOS Checklist. I accept that there will be occasional deviations, mostly for reasons of layout and design. But after that, I go for the explicitly biological model of the AOS because, in case after case after case, field identification is reflected in the evolutionary relationships among birds. I’m working right now on a field guide to the birds of the eastern U.S. and eastern Canada, and I’ve got the northern rough-winged swallow with the purple martin, the canyon towhee with the rufous-crowned sparrow, and of course the upland sandpiper with the other curlews; I’ve also got the bald and golden eagles widely separated, the green-winged teal far from the other birds called teal (and next to the pintail), and the sage thrasher away from the Toxostoma thrashers and on the same spread as the mockingbirds. All those juxtapositions and non-juxtapositions (and there are dozens more like them in the field guide) make sense, not only in terms of biological reality, but also, in my experience, in terms of correctly identifying birds in the field.
The linear sequence of the AOS Checklist is especially powerful, I have found, at taxonomic ranks at and above the family level. I remember the first time my son saw a crane walking through a cornfield. “It must be related to the coot,” he ventured. His reasoning: because of the way they bop their necks as they move. Bingo. I also remember the time my daughter called me out when I misID’d a passing kestrel a sharpie. The gist of her protest was that falcons and accipiters are quite unrelated. Once again: Bingo. And our recent experience, hers and mine, along County Road U, with those terrestrial, long-necked scolopacids who flash white in the outer primary whilst proclaiming their bubbly and wailing flight songs, the perfect epitome of curlewdom.
I said I have two strongly held opinions about how to present content in a field guide.
“They’re so derpy!”
I had to look that one up. Then I confirmed it with her brother, the ultimate authority on all matters of usage and style as they pertain to Gen Z. Just like that, I had the perfect name for the bird which looks like this:
The derpy curlew.
The name is efficient, descriptive, contemporary. Did you catch the assonance? This is poetry! And the biological accuracy: Things that are derpy have big eyes in the wrong place. Which is exactly the way this bird looks in life.
But I quickly became disenchanted with my new name for the species. After poking around on the internet a bit, I discovered that the word derpy has hurtful associations for some people. My kids didn’t know that, I hasten to point out, and neither did I; I didn’t even know the word until ten days ago. But no matter. The word offends, and that is that. I know better now, and I hereby banish the word from my lexicon.
Pete Dunne, in his splendid Field Guide Companion, calls this species the bug-eyed sandpiper. Quite clearly, there is something about the bird’s facial expression that catches the attention of the naturalist. I adore Dunne’s alternative names for the birds of the ABA Area, and I believe that easily 75% of them, and probably more like 90% of them, are superior to the “official” vernacular names for the birds. (By the way: It is so weird to even be having a conversation about the idea of an official vernacular. Think about that for just a moment.) But in the case of Dunne’s bug-eyed sandpiper, I think I’m going to take a pass on that one, too.
Every week, it seems, there’s a new study on the astonishing cognitive and even cultural attainments of birds. We had it completely wrong, as recently as the late 20th century, about the supposed mental deficiencies of birds. And I think “bug-eyed” plays into the “bird-brained” stereotype, if ever so slightly.
Birds are amazing. They are colorful and cryptic, their songs are spooky and heavenly, their epic migrations are stirring, and their cognitive abilities are freakishly advanced. Inasmuch as those attributes are rooted in biology, they demand an unapologetically biological formulation in the modern field guide. We respond, as well we should, in awe and wonder. And that aspect of the experience of birding has every bit as much place in the modern field guide as biology. In writing about the enchanting scolopacids of County Road U, it is okay—more than okay, it is imperative, I would say—to fit “clade” and “ethereal,” not to mention “scolopacids” and “enchanting,” into the same sentence.
That’s all I got. Biology + Rhetoric, and all the rest will sort itself out.
There’s just one final thing.
What shall we call this bird?
First off, I think we got bigger fish to fry than renaming this bird. Upland sandpiper isn’t all that bad. Better than upland plover or Bartramian sandpiper, and definitely superior to Bartramian plover. Derpy curlew and bug-eyed sandpiper are out.
The most beautiful vocalization of the species is a “sweet, mellow, rolling trill,” according to Bent, who adds that “it is evidently a love note.” They are powerful fliers, yet slender, even fragile; “[a]nxiety, common to all true lovers and devoted parents, keeps them thin,” according to Neltje Blanchan. And the bird is a “confiding companion” to Vernon Bailey, “trusting” and “friendly.”
All of the preceding resonated with us as we birded along County Road U that sunny Saturday morning. But how to sum it all up?
Did you catch the very first descriptor in Bent’s account? In the initial sentence of a treatise that runs to 15 pages in my Dover edition. The bird is gentle. A gentle curlew, equal parts biology and cultural context, a distillation of fact and feeling, an object in nature, and an experience far greater than the sum of its parts.
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.
Actually, Ted, contrastingly pale — white or whitish — shafts of, at least, the outermost primary is a generalized feature of Charadriiformes:
GRYE — https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/279248971
HEEG — https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/115975321
CATE — https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/268569871
The jaegers took the feature and ran with it.