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Country matters: 'Coor-li', the curlew's lonely cry

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The curlew is in danger of extinction

The curlew is in danger of extinction

The curlew is in danger of extinction

MANY years ago, a farmer took me to the rear of a derelict house overlooking the River Boyne at Slane and remarked on its two back doors.

This was unusual. Why two? I don't think he had a ready answer, except one important piece of local history: the second door was put in on the day the "cannons were booming" at Oldbridge, down the river. This was July the 1st, 1690, and the Battle of the Boyne!

Not far from the site of that house, like a troop of Jacobites drawn up and awaiting orders to move, was a flock of curlews, distinctive in their grey-brown uniforms, in a long sloping field on one of last week's bitter days. The 40-plus birds had a marvellous vista of the river and flood plain below and above a road which winds down to the river bridge.

They could follow the curve of water a handful of miles to estuary and salt marshes but they were probably gathering for a longer jump to northern England or Scotland and perhaps onwards to Holland and Scandinavia.

The curlew is almost a rarity now. It is on the red list of the RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland, being of high conservation concern. It was not always so. Clive Hutchinson wrote in Birds in Ireland in 1989 of the bird being "widespread at most times of the year" while, the much earlier, Birds of Ireland (Kennedy, Ruttledge and Scroope: 1954) described the curlew as being "abundant and widespread".

There has been considerable dispersal of this unusual and shy bird of marsh and tidal inlet, with its long legs and incredible curved beak for probing for earth and marine worms, crabs and small molluscs. It was once so numerous that it was regularly shot by wildfowlers, but habitat loss and human encroachment on wild places have taken a toll.

I never met anybody who ate one but Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, an editor of The Field, found it "really good" in September but "a bit kippery" in winter months. Diet was no doubt a factor. Salt-marsh curlews would not be as flavoursome as those that range inland.

Once along coastlines the unique evening "coor-li" cry of the curlew was a time-clock sound, like the Angelus bell, that the agricultural working day was ending as the high-flying bird headed for night roosts on islets and deserted promontories. This is a sound now rarely heard, as indeed is a ground sighting of the bird - though this month could be a good time for birders on estuary watch. Binoculars are essential as the bird is very wary as it walks slowly and deliberately, intent on the ebbing tide, probing deeply with that splendid bill. Its kinsman, the whimbrel, smaller and dumpier, is less wary but it is rarer than the curlew. The last one I watched was tussling with a mussel and quite oblivious to a curious human.

The curlew's wild song of courtship, once heard, is not easily forgotten. It is unexpected and remarkable. Beginning with the low-pitched "coor-li", it gradually accelerates, rising to an ecstatic crescendo of wild notes in a display flight dance. The male bird rises steeply, hovers, then glides down with wings in a shallow V. Robert Burns wrote of this bringing a feeling of "elevation of the soul" with its haunting melancholy. To another poet, Ted Hughes, the bird was a "wet-footed god of the horizons". He wrote: "Curlews in April hang their harps over the misty valleys."

Sunday Independent