The Eskimo curlew, which once made its migration from Patagonia to the Arctic in flocks so dense that they darkened the sky, was brought to the verge of extinction by the wanton slaughter of game-hunters.
Following the doomed search of a solitary curlew for a female of its kind, Fred Bodsworth’s novel is a haunting indictment of man’s destruction of the natural world.
About the authors
Graeme Gibson is the acclaimed author of Five Legs, Communion, Perpetual Motion, and Gentleman Death. He is a long-time cultural activist, and co-founder of the Writer's Union of Canada and the Writers' Trust. He is a past president of PEN Canada and the recipient of both the Harbourfront Festival Prize and the Toronto Arts Award, and is a Member of the Order of Canada. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: Last of the Curlews (by (author) Fred Bodsworth; afterword by Graeme Gibson)
By June the Arctic night has dwindled to a brief interval of grey dusk and throughout the long days mosquitoes swarm up like clouds of smoke from the potholes of the thawing tundra. It was then that the Eskimos once waited for the soft, tremulous, far-carrying chatter of the Eskimo curlew flocks and the promise of tender flesh that chatter brought to the Arctic land. But the great flocks no longer come. Even the memory of them is gone and only the legends remain. For the eskimo curlew, originally one of the continent’s most abundant game birds, flew a gantlet of shot each spring and fall, and, flying it, learned too slowly the fear of the hunter’s gun that was the essential of survival. now the species lingers on precariously at extinction’s lip.
The odd survivor still flies the long and perilous migration from the wintering grounds of Argentine’s Patagonia, to seek a mate of its kind on the sodden tundra plains which slope to the arctic sea. But the arctic is vast. Usually they seek in vain. The last of a dying race, they now fly alone.
As the Arctic half-night dissolved suddenly in the pink and then the glaring yellow of the onrushing June day, the Eskimo curlew recognized at last the familiar S-twist of the icehemmed river half a mile below. In the five hundred miles of flat and featureless tundra he had flown over that night, there had been many rivers with many twists identical to this one, yet the curlew knew that now he was home. He was tired. The brown barbs of his wing feathers were frayed and ragged from the migration flight that had started in easy stages below the tropics and had ended now in a frantic, non-stop dash across the treeless barren grounds as the full frenzy of the mating madness gripped him.
The curlew set his wings and dropped stone-like in a series of zigzagging side-slips. The rosy-pink reflections of ice pans on the brown river rushed up towards him. Then he leveled off into a long glide that brought him to earth on the oozy shore of a snow-water puddle well back from the river bank.
Here for millenniums the Eskimo curlew males had come with the Junetime spring to claim their individual nesting plots. Here on the stark Arctic tundra they waited feverishly for the females to come seeking their mates of the year. As they waited, each male vented the febrile passion of the breeding time by fighting savagely with neighboring males in defense of the territory he had chosen. In the ecstasy of home-coming, the curlew now hardly remembered that for three summers past he had been mysteriously alone and the mating fire within him had burned itself out unquenched each time as the lonely weeks passed and, inexplicably, no female had come.
The curlew’s instinct-dominated brain didn’t know or didn’t ask why.
He had been flying ten hours without stop but now his body craved food more than rest, for the rapid heartbeat and metabolism that had kept his powerful wing muscles flexing rhythmically hour after hour had taken a heavy toll of body fuel. He began probing into the mud with his long bill. It was a strange bill, curiously adapted for this manner of feeding, two-and-a-half inches long, strikingly down-curved, almost sickle-like. At each probe the curlew opened his bill slightly and moved the sensitive tip in tiny circular motions through the mud as he felt for the soft-bodied larvae of water insects and crustaceans. The bill jabbed in and out of the ooze with a rapid sewing-machine action.
There were still dirty grey snowdrifts in the tundra hollows but the sun was hot and the flat Arctic world already teemed with life. Feeding was good, and the curlew fed without stopping for over an hour until his distended crop at the base of his throat bulged grotesquely. Then he dozed fitfully in a half-sleep, standing on one leg, the other leg folded up close to his belly, his neck twisted so that the bill was tucked deeply into the feathers of his back. It was rest, but it wasn’t sleep, for the curlew’s ears and his one outside eye maintained an unrelaxing vigil for Arctic foxes or the phantom-like approach of a snowy owl. His body processes were rapid and in half an hour the energy loss of his ten-hour flight was replenished. He was fully rested.
The Arctic summer would be short and there would be much to do when the female came. The curlew flew to a rocky ridge that rose about three feet above the surrounding tundra, alighted and looked about him. It was a harsh, bare land to have flown nine thousand miles to reach. Its harshness lay in its emptiness, for above all else it was an empty land. The trees which survived the gales and cold of the long winters were creeping deformities of birch and willow which, after decades of snail-paced growth, had struggled no more than a foot or two high. The timberline where the trees of the sub-arctic spruce forests petered out and the tundra Barren Grounds began was five hundred miles south. It was mostly a flat and undrained land laced with muskeg ponds so close-packed that now, with the spring, it was half hidden by water. The low gravel humps and rock ridges which kept the potholes of water from merging into a vast, shallow sea were covered with dense mats of grey reindeer moss and lichen, now rapidly turning to green. A few inches below lay frost as rigid as battleship steel, the land’s foundation that never melted.
The curlew took off, climbed slowly, and methodically circled and re-circled the two-acre patchwork of water and moss that he intended to claim as his exclusive territory. Occasionally, sailing slowly on set, motionless wings, he would utter the soft, rolling whistle of his mating song. There was nothing of joy in the song. It was a warcry, a warning to all who could hear that the territory had an owner now, an owner flushed with the heat of the mating time who would defend it unflinchingly for the female that would come.
The curlew knew every rock, gravel bar, puddle and bush of his territory, despite the fact that in its harsh emptiness there wasn’t a thing that stood out sufficiently to be called a landmark. The territory’s western and northern boundaries were the top of the river’s S-twist which the curlew had spotted from the air. There was nothing of prominence to mark the other boundaries, only a few scattered granite boulders which sparkled with specks of pyrite and mica, a half dozen birch and willow shrubs and a few twisting necks of brown water. But the curlew knew within a few feet where his territory ended. Well in towards the centre was a low ridge of cobblestone so well drained and dry that, in the ten thousand years since the ice age glaciers had passed, the mosses and lichens had never been able to establish themselves. At the foot of this parched stony bar where drainage water from above collected, the moss and lichen mat was thick and luxuriant. Here the female would select her nesting site. In the top of a moss hummock she would fashion out a shallow, saucer-like depression, line it haphazardly with a few crisp leaves and grasses and lay her four olive-brown eggs.
The curlew circled higher and higher, his mating song becoming sharper and more frequent. Suddenly the phrases of the song were tumbled together into a loud, excited, whistling rattle. Far upriver, a brown speck against the mottled grey and blue sky, another bird was winging northward, and the curlew had recognized it already as another curlew.
He waited within the borders of his territory, flying in tightening circles and calling excitedly as the other bird came nearer. The female was coming. The three empty summers that the male had waited vainly and alone on his breeding territory were a vague, tormenting memory, now almost lost in a brain so keenly keyed to instinctive responses that there was little capacity for conscious thought or memory. Instinct took full control now as the curlew spiraled high into the air in his courtship flight, his wings fluttering moth-like instead of sweeping the air with the deep strokes of normal flight. At the zenith of the spiral his wings closed and the bird plunged earthwards in a whistling dive, leveled off a few feet above the tundra and spiraled upward again.
The other bird heard the male’s frenzied calling, changed flight direction and came swiftly toward him. But instinctively obeying the territorial law that all birds recognize, she came to earth and perched on a moss-crowned boulder well outside the male’s territory.
The male was seething now with passion and excitement. He performed several more courtship flights in rapid succession, spiraling noisily upward each time until almost out of sight, then plunging earthward in a dive that barely missed the ground. For several minutes the female nonchalantly preened her wing feathers, oblivious to the love display. Then, alternately flying and running across the tundra a few quick wing-beats or steps at a time, she moved into the mating territory and crouched submissively, close to where the male was performing.
The male whistled shrilly and zoomed up in a final nuptial flight, hovered in mid-air high above the crouching female, then dropped like a falling meteorite to a spot about six feet from where she waited. He stood for a moment, feathers fluffled out and neck out-stretched, then walked stiff-legged toward her.
When still a yard away, the male abruptly stopped. The whispering courtship twitter that had been coming from deep in his throat suddenly silenced, and a quick series of alarm notes came instead. The female’s behavior also suddenly changed. No longer meekly submissive, she was on her feet and stepping quickly away.
The male abandoned his courtship stance, lowered his head like a fighting cock and dashed at the female. She dodged sideways, and took wing. The male flew in pursuit, calling noisily and striking repeatedly at her retreating back.
The curlew’s mating passion had suddenly turned into an aggressive call to battle. The female was a trespasser on his territory, not a prospective mate, for at close range he had recognized the darker plumage and eccentric posture of a species other than his own. The other bird was a female of the closely related Hudsonian species, but the Eskimo curlew knew only, through the instinctive intuition set up by nature to prevent infertile matings between different species, that this bird was not the mate he awaited.
He chased her a quarter of a mile with a fury as passionate as his love had been a few seconds before. Then he returned to the territory and resumed the wait for the female of his own kind that must soon come.
Two curlew species, among the longest legged and longest billed in the big shorebird family of snipes, sandpipers and plovers to which they belong, nest on the Arctic tundra—the Eskimo curlew and the commoner and slightly larger Hudsonian. Though distinct species, they are almost indistinguishable in appearance.
The Arctic day was long, and despite the tundra gales which whistled endlessly across the unobstructed land the day was hot and humid. The curlew alternately probed the mudflats for food and patrolled his territory, and all the time he watched the land’s flat horizons with eyes that never relaxed. Near mid-day a rough-legged hawk appeared far to the north, methodically circling back and forth across the river and diving earthward now and then on a lemming that incautiously showed itself among the reindeer moss. The curlew eyed the hawk apprehensively as the big hunter’s circling brought it slowly upriver towards the curlew’s territory. Finally the roughleg crossed the territory boundary unmarked on the ground but sharply defined in the curlew’s brain. The curlew took off in rapid pursuit, his long wings stroking the air deeply and his larynx shrieking a sharp piping alarm as he closed in on the intruder with a body weight ten times his own. For a few seconds the hawk ignored the threatened attack, then turned back northward without an attempt at battle. It could have killed the curlew with one grasp of its talons, but it was a killer only when it needed food, and it gave ground willingly before a bird so maddened with the fire of the mating time.
The sun dipped low, barely passing from view, and the curlew’s first Arctic night dropped like a grey mist around him. The tundra cooled quickly, and as it cooled the gale that had howled all day suddenly died. Dusk, but not darkness, followed.
The curlew was drawn by an instinctive urge he felt but didn’t understand to the dry ridge of cobblestone with the thick mat of reindeer moss at its base where the nest would be. In his fifth summer now, he had never seen a nest or even a female of his kind except the nest and mother he had briefly known in his own nestling stage, yet the know-how of courtship and nesting was there, unlearned, like a carry-over from another life he had lived. And he dozed now on one leg, bill tucked under the feathers of his back, beside the gravel bar which awaited the nest that the bird’s instinct said there had to be.
Tomorrow or the next day the female would come, for the brief annual cycle of life in the Arctic left time for no delays.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Other titles by Graeme Gibson
Gentleman Death / Perpetual Motion
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
Eleven Canadian Novelists Interviewed by Graeme Gibson
Graeme Gibson Interviews Alice Munro
From Eleven Canadian Novelists Interviewed by Graeme Gibson
The Bedside Book of Beasts
A Wildlife Miscellany
The Bedside Book of Birds
An Avian Miscellany