Mud Strategies

Notice the difference in strategies between the little sandpipers and the Long-billed Curlew. The sandpipers peck as fast as a sewing machine, but without a visible thread. They might as well be pecking with their eyes closed. They’re relying on the law of averages: if we peck absolutely everywhere we’re bound to find something. Whatever they find must be very small, because we don’t see them pausing for even a split second to manage something with their beak and swallow it.

Contrast the long bill. It gives the occasional short pecks here and there, but mainly it stalks with eyes on the mud, looking for surface clues to something edible beneath. When it strikes, it can go deep, to the eyeballs, and it can twist around. We see it twice quickly pinch and turn some little mud dweller and shoot it up that long beak for consumption.

Are there no surface clues that the small sandpipers could follow? Or is it we humans who are blind and don’t notice that the short bills always peck in a targeted way, and that there happen to be a hundred targets per square inch and the birds can hit them accurately at the speed of an Uzi? The birds don’t seem to be starving, so this method must work for them, but it looks like a high energy cost, low-payoff strategy. Maybe that’s why they’re so small …

P.S. Most of the little ones are probably Least Sandpipers. There are also a few who are slightly larger, probably Western Sandpipers, but I’m not sure.

The curlew looks and acts like a shorebird, like the jumbo size sandpiper that it is. But it spends the non-winter season mostly in grasslands. It’s a prairie dweller that sometimes finds a home on cattle ranges and farm fields. Here on the shore in winter it eats little crabs, mud-dwelling worms and snails, and the like; but back home its favorite food is grasshoppers.

Local angle: This bird used to be known as the Candlestick Bird. Huge flocks of it roosted on a certain promontory on the Bay side of the San Francisco peninsula. That spot got the name Candlestick Point, after the birds, and the sports park the same. But by the time the park opened, heavy development had driven the birds from the site.

More: Wikipedia Audubon Cornell

Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus)

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