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Doug Leier: Study aims to shed light on long-billed curlews in North Dakota

Long-billed curlews are a species of concern because of population declines, and they’re also seen as an indicator species for the health of grasslands, even agricultural lands.

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As part of the study of long-billed curlews in North Dakota, researchers are attaching solar-powered tracking devices to learn more about the habitats and regions that are important to the shorebird species.
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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

WEST FARGO – Like most of you, I’ve long appreciated the grit of North Dakota’s native species. We tend to think more about the toughness of sharp-tailed grouse, northern pike and pronghorn that, like our ancestors, have managed to survive on the prairies, as opposed to the more beautiful, but fragile nonnative pheasant.

In the same vein, let’s not overlook some of the nongame species. Maybe we can appreciate those even more. Have you ever given a second thought to the long-billed curlew?

Color me guilty, as well, until a recent column in North Dakota OUTDOORS magazine.

Most wouldn’t give a second thought, but when a species is referenced in Theodore Roosevelt’s journal and still found here today, it’s place in history is well deserved.

“It’s a bird he observed when he was here in North Dakota, when he spent time on the Elkhorn Ranch; he called it one of the most conspicuous birds. It was a bird he really enjoyed. And it’s a bird that you probably can't find in that Elkhorn Ranch area anymore,” said Sandra Johnson, Game and Fish Department conservation biologist. “We still have a good curlew population in North Dakota, but there are places where we’re just not finding them. So, that’s where a study will really help figure out what’s going on with our curlews.The hope is that the study will reveal a full life-cycle perspective on these interesting birds.

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“Long-billed curlews are only in North Dakota for a couple of months during the breeding season and then they migrate to the Texas coast or elsewhere for seven, eight, nine months,” Johnson added. “So, it’s really important to learn more about whether we are all doing our part to make sure that this bird has safe places all along the way.”

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has teamed with two leading conservation organizations to study the movements of a conspicuous shorebird to better recognize the bird’s habitat use in southwestern North Dakota and elsewhere. In the department-funded study, managed by Boise State University’s Intermountain Bird Observatory and Northern Great Plains Program of American Bird Conservancy, researchers planned to fit long-billed curlews that migrated in spring to North Dakota to breed, with solar-powered tracking devices.

“We’re hoping to be able to find some curlew nests and then be able to trap adult birds and outfit them with satellite or cellular transmitters that can give us data remotely,” said Jay Carlisle, research director for Intermountain Bird Observatory. “Then we can just be armchair biologists and collect data on their movement throughout the year. The main goal is to get information on habitats and regions that are important to curlews, not just while they're here in North Dakota, but during migration, during the long non-breeding season and then spring migration again.”

So, why study long-billed curlews, as many other species – ones that researchers know by song or simply by glancing at as they wing speedily by – share much of the same landscape?

“Long-billed curlews are a species of concern because of population declines, and they’re also seen as an indicator species for the health of grasslands, even agricultural lands,” Carlisle said. “Mainly it's because of this population decline that has happened disproportionately in different areas, that there’s been interest in understanding more about the full annual cycle of long-billed curlews and ideally stitching together what are some limiting factors, what are some threats that affect populations and are they affecting different populations differently? We already know this is the case, but we’re still learning more and more about different populations.

“These birds are great indicators of ecological health. Their position in food chains and their lifespan is pretty short, so they can help us see how healthy our environment is,” he added. “These are working lands here in North Dakota and we're just looking at how we can have all the pieces work together.”

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.
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