Curlew sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea)

French: Bécasseau cocorli
GenusCalidris (1)
SizeLength: 19.5 – 21 cm (2)
Wingspan: 44 cm (2)
Weight69 g (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The curlew sandpiper is a medium-sized shorebird that has very distinctive breeding plumage and an extraordinary down-curved bill. Typically, this beautiful little bird has grey upper-plumage that is almost scaly in appearance, white plumage on the underparts, and a white rump that is noticeable in flight (3). It has slender, black legs and a prominent white eye stripe that extends back from the eye (4). However, during the breeding season the adult birds develop striking deep chestnut plumage on the underparts (3) and speckles of red mixed with black and grey on the upperparts. Juvenile curlew sandpipers have a grey and brown body with a peach colouring to the breast (4). The vocalisations of the curlew sandpiper can be described as a soft, low “chirrup” (5).

The curlew sandpiper breeds on the tundra in Siberia and Alaska. It is a highly migratory bird that winters in areas from western Europe and southern Asia to southern Africa and Australia (2).

This species inhabits tundra when breeding, often within marshy or boggy areas. Over winter it can be found in a wide range of habitats including mudflats, sandflats, saltmarshes, and around estuaries and coastal lagoons (2) (6).

The diet of the curlew sandpiper mainly consists of insects and other small invertebrates such as crustaceans, molluscs and worms, but it will also occasionally feed on seeds and other plant material (7). It uses its magnificent bill to forage in the mud for prey, and probes continuously as it walks quickly across its habitat (7).

This elegant bird is very social, forming large groups with other waders such as the dunlin. Its migration is long and arduous, with some birds travelling from western Europe to as far as Australia to spend the winter. In England, these wonderful birds can be seen picking through the muddy shores mainly in August and September (3).

During the courtship season, a male will follow closely behind a potential mate whilst she forages, every once in a while producing a song. It will also perform an aerial courtship display, demonstrating its agility and speed with dramatic chases back and forth across the tundra with the male pursuing the female in long dynamic flights that are low to the ground (8).

Male curlew sandpipers do not take part in parental care, instead females group together to build nests, incubate and raise their broods. Between two to six females may nest close together; a behaviour that means that females can cooperate in predator defence (9). During the hatchlings’ first week of life, the female moves them from their nesting site to ‘rearing areas’ of moist, grassy tundra, where prey is more readily available (9).

Interestingly, the abundance of the curlew sandpiper has been discovered to depend on the lemming population (Lemmus sibirica and Dicrostonyx torquatus), which fluctuates on a three-year cycle; during years when the numbers of lemmings plummets, predators such as the Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) and the skua (Stercorarius skua) switch to feed on juvenile curlew sandpipers instead (10) (11). 

The degradation of several important sites in China, South Korea, the south-east coast of India and Namibia, as a result of activities such as drainage, pollution, and certain agricultural methods, is considered a threat to this migratory species (1) (12). The curlew sandpiper is also susceptible to avian influenza and avian botulism, and so any future outbreaks of these diseases may impact this species (1).

The curlew sandpiper is listed on Appendix II of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA), an ongoing effort headed by the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS) to help protect 255 species of migratory birds that are dependent on wetlands at some point in their annual cycle (13). In the UK, the RSPB manages a large number of wetland reserves, such as Titchwell Marsh, in order to maintain migratory habitat for birds such as the curlew sandpiper (3).

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You can see the curlew sandpiper by visiting the Rye and Winchelsea, East Sussex:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: Profiles of Birds Occurring in Britain & Ireland. BTO Research Report 407, BTO, Thetford.
  3. RSBP (November, 2009)
  4. Grewal, B., Harvey, B. and Pfister, O. (2002) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  5. Dunne, P. (2006) Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  6. BirdLife International (November, 2009)
  7. O’Brien, M., Crossley, R. and Karlson, K. (2006) The Shorebird Guide. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  8. Holmes, R.T. and Pitelka, F.A. (1964) Breeding behaviour and taxonomic relationships of the curlew sandpiper. The Auk, 81(3): 362-379.
  9. Schekkerman, H., Van Roomeni, M.W.J. and Underhill, L.G. (1998) Growth, behaviour of broods and weather-related variation in breeding productivity of curlew sandpipers Calidris ferruginea. Ardea, 86(2): 153-168.
  10. Blomqvist, S., Holmgren, N., Akesson, S., Hedenstrom, A. and Pettersson, J. (2002) Indirect effects of lemming cycles on sandpiper dynamics: 50 years of counts from southern Sweden. Oecologia, 133(2): 146-158.
  11. Roselaar, C.S. (1979) Variation in numbers of curlew sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea). Watervogels, 4: 202-210.
  12. Convention on Migratory Species (November, 2009)
  13. Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (November, 2009)