Little curlew (Numenius minutus)

Also known as: little whimbrel
French: Courlis nain
GenusNumenius (1)
SizeLength: 28 - 32 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 68 - 71 cm (2) (3)
Weight118 - 221 g (2) (3)
Top facts

The little curlew is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Discovered in Australia in 1840 (4), the little curlew (Numenius minutus), as its name suggests, is the smallest of the curlew species (2) (4) (5). One of the distinguishing features of the little curlew is its short, fine bill (2) (3) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9), which is longer than its head, and is blackish with a pinkish base (6). Curving only slightly downwards (2) (3) (6) (9) (10), this species’ bill is the least curved of all the curlew species (3).

The little curlew’s back, sides and rump are a warm buff colour (2) (3) (6) (11), and its upperparts are darkly mottled (6). Fine, dark streaks stain the buff feathers of the little curlew’s breast and neck (3) (5) (6), while its belly is whitish and unmarked (6) (8). The little curlew’s eyes are large and black (2) (6) (11), and its rounded head is prominently patterned with dark brown stripes on the crown and through the eyes, which contrast with its broad, buffy eyebrows (2) (3) (6) (9).

In flight, the dark buff undersides of the little curlew’s wings can be seen (3) (11), which are described as being mottled brown (6), or barred with brown, arrow-shaped marks (11) (12). The little curlew has a brown or brownish-grey tail, which is patterned with narrow, dark and white bars (3) (11), and its feet are yellowish to greenish-grey or bluish-grey (3) (6) (7).

The male and female little curlew are similar in appearance, although the female is usually slightly larger than the male. This species’ plumage does not vary seasonally. The juvenile little curlew is very similar in appearance to the adult, but it has less streaking on the flanks and breast, and its shoulder feathers are marked with pale buff spots and fringes (2).

The little curlew produces a variety of calls, including a musical ‘quee-dlee’ (10) and a soft, three-note ‘te-te-te’ chattering whistle which rises slightly in pitch (3) (6) (12). When alarmed, the little curlew emits a loud, harsh ‘tchew-tchew-tchew’ or ‘kweek-ek’ call (6) (7) (9) (10) (12).

The little curlew has a somewhat restricted breeding range (4), which encompasses parts of northern and north-eastern Siberia (2) (8), between the Yenisei River and western Chukotka (3). A highly migratory species (8), the little curlew winters in Australia, New Guinea, and elsewhere in the South Pacific region (2) (3) (4) (6) (8) (10). As a result of nomadic movements during winter, the little curlew sometimes reaches southern Australia, Tasmania, and on rare occasions even New Zealand (2).

The little curlew has been recorded as a vagrant in several countries, including Thailand, Singapore, China and Britain (3) (7) (12) (13).

Throughout the breeding season, the little curlew is usually found in grassy clearings or fire-damaged areas within larch (Larix species) and dwarf birch (Betula nana) woodland (13), or on the forest edge (14). This breeding habitat is typically found along river valleys (2) (13), or on well-drained areas of southward-facing mountain slopes (13).

During its southward migration in winter, the little curlew tends to forage and rest in swampy meadows adjacent to lakes or along river valleys (13). The little curlew winters on short, dry grassland, such as airfields, lawns, ploughed fields and dry floodplains (2) (3) (4) (6) (7) (9) (13) (14), and interestingly is one of just a few migratory bird species to make use of grassy urban areas (4). These wintering grounds are always located near sources of freshwater, such as swamps, lakes or wetland margins (2) (7) (8) (9), and the little curlew occasionally occurs on coastal swamps, sandflats in estuaries, or on the beaches of sheltered coasts (13).

There are few detailed studies on the little curlew (4), but it is known to be a gregarious species, forming large flocks of up to 1,000 individuals (2) (8) (9). The little curlew is strongly migratory, and from mid-August to October it travels southwards along the eastern coast of Asia from its breeding grounds in Siberia, making few stopovers along the way (2) (13). This species reaches its main wintering grounds in early September (2). While on its Australian wintering grounds, the little curlew is known to make erratic movements within the country, which appear to be related to rainfall and food availability (4) (13). From late March to late April, flocks of little curlews return to their breeding grounds in Siberia (2).

While the little curlew’s diet consists primarily of small invertebrates such as grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars and spiders (2) (8) (13), this species also eats seeds and berries (2) (13), opportunistically feeding on whatever food source is most freely available (4). The little curlew feeds by picking food items off the ground, or probing into soft mud (2) (6) (8), and tends to search for food in the morning and mid-afternoon, gathering near water to roost during the warmest part of the day in between these foraging outings (2).

The little curlew’s breeding season extends from late May to early August (2) (13), and this species usually breeds in loose colonies of between 3 and 30 pairs (2) (8) (13). Breeding generally occurs within grassy forest clearings in river valleys, and the little curlew’s nest is a shallow depression or scrape in the ground which is lined with grass (2) (8) (13). The female little curlew lays a clutch of four eggs, sometimes three, and only produces one clutch per breeding season. Both the male and female little curlew take part in egg incubation, which lasts between 22 and 23 days. The young little curlews fledge at five weeks old (2). 

Although the little curlew is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (2), it may potentially be under threat from habitat loss or modification, for instance as a result of agricultural intensification or through contamination by pesticides (2) (4) (13). However, the extent of these threats is difficult to evaluate (4).

The presence of invasive or introduced species within the little curlew’s habitat is also contributing to habitat degradation, by negatively affecting the ecological conditions within the habitat (4) (13). For example, colonisation by invasive plants, such as Mimosa pigra, is currently leading to the degradation of important migratory stopover sites for the little curlew in northern Australia (13). Further threats to this species include saltwater intrusion as a result of rising sea levels, and habitat damage by feral pigs and buffalo (4) (13). 

The little curlew has a very large range and a large population (13), and at present there are no known conservation measures in place specifically targeting this species.

However, in Australia the little curlew has benefitted from the provision of watering points and large areas of grassland for livestock (2), and this distinctive wader is known to occur in Kakadu National Park (4). Several recommendations have been made to help ensure that the little curlew does not become a threatened species, including conducting further studies based on species-habitat relationships, responses to climate change, and the little curlew’s patterns of movement, as well as identifying areas of importance to the species (4).

Find out more about the little curlew:

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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 (October, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Brazil, M. (2009) Birds of East Asia. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  4. Bellio, M.G., Bayliss, P., Morton, S. and Chatto, R. (2006) Status and conservation of the little curlew Numenius minutus on its over-wintering grounds in Australia. In: Boere, G., Galbraith, C. and Stroud, D. (Eds.) Waterbirds Around the World: A Global Overview of the Conservation, Management and Research of the World's Waterbird Flyways. The Stationary Office, Edinburgh.
  5. Peterson, R.T. (2001) A Field Guide to Western Birds: A Completely New Guide to Field Marks of All Species Found in North America West of the 100th Meridian and North of Mexico. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  6. Dutson, G. (2012) Birds of Melanesia: Bismarcks, Solomons, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  7. Robson, C. and Allen, R. (2005) New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia. New Holland Publishers, London.
  8. MobileReference (2009) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of European Birds: An Essential Guide to Birds of Europe. MobileReference, Boston.
  9. Kennedy, R.S., Gonzales, P.C., Dickinson, E.C., Miranda Jr, H.C. and Fisher, T.H. (2000) A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  10. Dunn, J.L. and Alderfer, J. (2006) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Fifth Edition. National Geographic Books, Florida.
  11. Gould, J. (1865) Handbook to the Birds of Australia. John Gould, London.
  12. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollum, P.A.D. (2001) A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  13. BirdLife International - Little curlew (October, 2012)
  14. Parkin, D. and Knox, A. (2009) The Status of Birds in Britain and Ireland. A&C Black Publishers, London.