Uncovering Threats Impacting Wintering Long-billed Curlews in the Mexicali Valley

By Erica Gaeta

AN UPDATE FROM THE FIELD

On Friday, February 22, 2019 I went in search of long-billed curlews by myself. After several hours went by without a bird in sight, until I finally observed a flock of curlews (Numenius americanus), white-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi), greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis), among others.

They were feeding in a wheat field that was being flood irrigated for the first time since the soil was initially prepared for seeding. Birds love this phase as insect emerge out of the ground in an attempt not to drown. I initially counted 16 curlews, and then quickly realized that someone with a gun was also in the field. BOOM! I watched him shot twice. It was shocking to see curlews come back to the same area, landing within 20 meters of the man shooting and resume to feeding. After 5 minutes of being in the area counting birds and observing, the landowner approached me. I was by myself, so I was a little nervous I was in trouble. I quickly explained my research and my interest curlews. He openly expressed his frustration toward them, calling them stubborn birds. He explained to me that he has to hire multiple people for 3 days to guard the area while it is flooded. Meanwhile, I quickly learned why he called them stubborn birds. Shots continued some birds would flush others did nothing. Those that flushed return to continue feeding. This behavior was alarming to me, making curlews very vulnerable.

This isn’t the first wheat farmer to express their frustration with curlews to me. Among the wheat farmers I have spoken to, they express how curlews cause damage to their crops due to trampling during the early stage of its growth. During irrigation it is susceptible to trampling, as the soil is soft.

After spoke with the landowner I took this video. I stayed at this site for several hours. I left the area after I thought the shooter had left. I drove about a kilometer to another survey location when I heard two more gun shots in that same direction I had just left. Although, I did not see any direct injuries to birds while I was there, the landowner admitted to me that, sadly, they do occasionally shoot curlews. He described to me that when they kill a curlew they leave them on the ground, while the surviving curlews fly overhead circling, and calling. He said they do this to attract turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) so they can scare the curlews as well. It was a bit disheartening to hear those additional shots after I left. I understand this is their livelihoods, and they have families to feed. I hope to speak to as many farmers as I can to gain more information on this issue and hopefully we can do something to resolve this conflict.

Another method I have seen from afar and heard is the use of fireworks to deter birds from agricultural fields.

Lastly, landowners and watch guards have also approached me and Pronatura staff in suspicion of us being hunters/poachers while we are conducting surveys. Telling us stories of hunters from the United States crossing and going on killing sprees on their properties.

On a different day we encountered an injured white-faced ibis walking along a small canal. This poor bird had a broken wing. The cause is unknown.