I was researching some things on curlews and I came across this small, easy to read book by Canadian writer, Fred Bodsworth.Â Before I go any further, I have to say that there will be spoilers, but I will alert you before I get to them.Â It is a sad story and you will need a tissue to read this book!
I decided to do at least two, possibly three posts about this book and about Eskimo curlews in general.Â But, for now, I am going to just review the book and the 1972 ABC After School Special based on the book.
First, a little bit of history about the Eskimo curlew.Â The Eskimo curlew is a medium-sized shorebird between the size of a black-bellied plover and a greater yellowlegs.Â It is mostly brown and has a curved bill.Â It is very similar to whimbrels who share much of the same breeding range.Â Eskimo curlews had one of the longest migrations on Earth, traveling from the far north of Canada all the way to the tip of South America and back each year.Â Before migration, they would fatten up on berries and insects, creating a large fatty pad that some say felt a lot like dough, so they were often called "Dough birds".Â Unfortunately, that (as well as the decline of the passenger pigeon), made them popular in the uncontrolled meat market of the mid-late 1800s.
Eskimo curlew, mounted at a museum:Â Source:Â Wikimedia
Within 10 years, their population plummeted.Â The destruction of their primary spring food source, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, prohibited their recovery.Â Also, even though they were very few in numbers, they still continued to be shot right up to 1918 when they were finally protected under the Migratory Bird Act.Â But, it was too late.Â Around the time that the book, Last of the Curlews was written, only an occasional lone male would be seen every few years.Â This was the inspiration for the book; it is the story of one of these lone males trying to find a mate.
The book is fairly short, around 110 pages depending on how many illustrations and commentaries are in it.Â Newer copies have more commentaries and might bring the book up to as many as 150 pages.Â The story starts out with the male curlew having just come back up from South America.Â He is alone, doesn't see anyone else of his kind and hasn't in the last three of his five years of life.Â Still, he defends his territory.
"The Arctic summer would be short and there would be much to do when the female came. . ."
His instincts tell him a female will come, but, alas, she doesn't and he feels the pressure to begin his southward migration.Â He takes up the company of some golden plovers who travel with him most of the way through treacherous storms with loss of life.Â Â Eventually, he travels on alone to his winter home.Â Still no sign of his kind and no female there, so he begins his northward migration when a female finds him.
"He had never seen a member of his own species before.Â Probably the female had not either.Â Both had search two continents without consciously knowing what to look for.Â Yet when chance at last threw them together, the instinct of generations past when the Eskimo curlew was one of the Americas' most abundant birds made the recognition sure and immediate."
He proceeds to court her, offering food as an invitation to be her mate.Â She would respond positively and they made the trip back to the north, taking their time.Â Â They mostly flew at night and ate during the day.Â However, they had to cross the Andes mountains.Â Here, a big storm blew them around and they had to hunker down under a cliff.Â But, they were OK.Â The flew on, across the Gulf of Mexico and through the great plains, not seeming to be in any hurry.Â In the meantime, their bond grew strong over the months.
They stopped on a farm and the male did his courtship dance and food offering to the female, not noticing that a farmer plowing the field they were in had stopped to watch them.Â Finally, for the first time, the female allowed him to mate. They were almost home and almost time for the female to lay eggs.Â Just a few hours flight left.
"He saw the man leap down from the tractor seat and run toward a fence where his jacket hung.Â Normally, at this, even the curlews would have taken wing in alarm, but now the female accepted the courtship feeding and her wings still quivered in a paroxysm of mating passion.Â She crouched submissively for the copulation and in the ecstasy of mating they were blind to everything around them."
The farmer shot at them, hitting the female.Â But, she didn't die right away, they both flew off, the male encouraging her to go faster.Â Eventually, as her chest feathers began to darken, she could fly no more.
"She started calling to him again, not the loud calls of alarm but the soft, throaty quirking of the love display.Â Then, she dropped suddenly.Â Her wings kept fluttering weakly, it was similar to the excited quivering of the mating moment, and her body twisted over and over until it embedded itself in the damp Earth below. . .
"A long time later, he (the male) overcame the fear and landed on the ground close to her.Â He preened her wing feathers softly with his bill. . . Finally, he slept close beside her."
Eskimo Curlews, by John Audubon, Public Domain
In the morning, he tried to to give her a courtship offering, but she didn't respond and he flew off back to his home territory and nesting site to continue with his life.
"The Arctic summer would be short.Â The territory must be held in readiness for the female his instinct told him soon would come."
He waited so long, got very close to what he he wanted, only to have it taken away.Â There was no way to know if he would ever have another chance again.
In between the chapters, the history of the Eskimo curlew are presented in the form of a fake scholarly journal or newspaper.
ABC After School Special
In 1972, ABC started a series of "After School Specials" beginning with the showing of "The Last of the Curlews" with animation done by the Hanna-Barbera studios.Â The story was pretty much the same as the book, except for a few things:
The show added two characters, a man and his son, hunting.Â Otherwise, this story would have really had no humans in the story at all except for the farmer.Â The man was a staunch hunter, trying to get his son to follow suit, but his son was more sensitive to nature.Â At the end of the show, the son stumbles on the two curlews as they are sleeping together, flushing both of them, only to have the female drop dead right before him.
Another big difference between the book and the show was that the book never said that this was a story about the last two Eskimo curlews in existence, but the show did. At the end, it has this statement:
"There were once many thousands of Eskimo curlew, then there were two, now there was one, soon they'll be none".
After that statement, a sad song about being "On Golden Wings, you and I went wandering. . ." and "You're gone away.Â You were mine for a while. . ."
Needless to say, many people were uncontrollably crying at the end of this show.Â For some reason, this show was more painful and upsetting than other shows or movies where an animal dies like Bambi or Kimba the White Lion. I've read stories about how some parents arrived home to see their kids in tears and thinking someone had died.Â Another said a few kids were "sick" the next day, and many remember being totally traumatized by this show.Â More than one person said they cried for a week (I just saw this recently and I still cry about it!) Unlike many children's programming, this one wasn't wrapped up in a bow that said "Everything will be alright".Â No, this was saying that "There is no hope, it's not going to get better, it'll get worse."Â It started out like a cute cartoon about two little brown birds beating the odds and ended up very dire.
If you would like to watch the show, I have included a link to part one from You Tube here.Â For some reason, I can't embed You Tube videos on Gather anymore.Â There are 5 parts in all and all can be found on You Tube.Â Unfortunately, the beginning and ending music and credits were not included.Â There is one cute song in the middle of the third or fourth part.Â The person posting it got the name of the author wrong.
I have to admit, though, the animation seems cheesy though it was considered state of the art in that day.Â I don't know if kids would watch this nowadays.
I recommend the book and the show to children 10 and above only.Â A lot of the people who say they were traumatized by the show were under 10 at the time they watched it.Â The book, for some reason, is milder than the show.
I may write another posts about sightings of this bird since the book was written.Â It may or may not be considered extinct.Â The last physical evidence was a bird shot in Barbados in 1963.