National Geographic : 1948 Dec
The Curlew's Secret BY ARTHUR A. ALLEN Professor of Ornithology, Cornell University Leader, National Geographic Society-Cornell University-Arctic Institute of North America Expedition to Alaska With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author UP TO June 12, 1948, one bird-and one only-of all the 815 species of North American birds had successfully hidden the secret of its nesting place and summer home from the eyes of man. This bird of mystery was the bristle-thighed curlew, so named because of dubious adorn ments sprouting from its flanks and even its belly (Plate I). No bigger than a pullet, but strong of wing, this great little traveler was known to winter on Tahiti and other South Sea islands and in spring to fly 5,500 miles, often by way of the Hawaiian Islands, to the coast of Alaska (map, page 754). But there it seemed to vanish into the thin air of the North. The story of the curlew's secret begins be fore the American Revolution with the famous round-the-world voyage of the British navi gator, Capt. James Cook, during the years 1768 to 1771. It ends with a 1948 expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Cornell University, and the Arctic Institute of North America, which was organized in 1944 by distinguished Canadians and Americans. First Specimen Found in 1769 Captain Cook had already demonstrated his appreciation of science, his knowledge of navigation, and his administrative ability when he was selected by the Lords of the Ad miralty to sail the Endeavour on a voyage of exploration around the world.* The main objective from the standpoint of the Royal Society was to make observations on the transit of Venus across the sun, which might give information of value to astronomy and navigation. This happens about once in a hundred years and the Society, desiring data from widely separate points, wished the transit of June 3, 1769, observed from an island in the South Pacific. Tahiti, then called Otaheite, had been visited by Capt. Samuel Wallis, R.N., the year before and was selected as the most likely spot. Thither Captain Cook directed his course, leaving Plymouth, England, late in August 1768. Sir Joseph Banks, an ardent naturalist, was chosen by the Royal Society to accom pany the expedition. After an unusually well-ordered voyage, the expedition anchored at Tahiti on April 13, 1769, and stayed until July 13. It estab lished friendly relations with the natives and recorded successfully the transit of Venus. Three months on the island gave Banks and his helpers plenty of time to harvest a repre sentative natural-history collection, and this was made available to other scientists upon the return to England. Examining the expedition's bird collection, John Latham, a leading ornithologist of the day, recognized a curlew from Tahiti as dif ferent from the European whimbrel. When he published his General Synopsis of Birds in 1785, he listed the new bird as the Otaheite curlew. Its present scientific name is Nu menius tahitiensis. Bristles Noted by Titian Peale After Captain Cook had shown the way, practically every naturalist who visited any of the South Sea islands between September and April found Otaheite curlews and sent specimens back to the various museums of Europe. From 1838 to 1842 Titian Peale, son of the artist Charles Willson Peale, accompanied the United States Exploring Expedition to the South Seas under Lt. Charles Wilkes and found a curlew, in the Low (Tuamotu) Archi pelago, which he thought to be a new species. Because he noted curious bristlelike feathers on the flanks and belly, he called it Numenius femoralis, and the common name, "bristle thighed curlew," has stuck to this day. The bird proved to be the same as the one in Sir Joseph Banks' collection. The charac teristic bristles-more conspicuous in some individuals than others-appear to have gone unnoticed by Latham. For a hundred years after the discovery of the bird, naturalists believed it to be a resident of the South Seas and thought it must nest on some other island than the one they were studying. Then on M\ay 18, 1869, Ferdinand Bischoff collected a bristle-thighed curlew at *See "Columbus of the Pacific," by J. R. Hilde brand, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1927.