Bird Watcher's General Store

Whimbrel Is Named For Its Call
07/23/10


Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve just returned from a trip to Cape Cod where I saw a several life birds, including a number of Whimbrels. After I got home I started reading about Whimbrels but could not find any information on how the birds got their unique name. Do you know?

– Lewis, Princeton, NJ

This is a tough one, Lewis,

I had to do a lot of digging to find your answer. It turns out that Whimbrels are named after Jebediah Whimbrel. Jebediah was a noted naturalist of the early 1600s. One might think that he’d be honored to have a bird named after him, but this was not the case. You see, Jebediah Whimbrel was not a very handsome man. He had a long, hooked nose. Because of this freakish feature his fellow naturalists started referring to the Hudsonian Curlew, a bird with a long, hooked beak, as a “Whimbrel,” and the name stuck. In recent years political correctness has tried to bury this disparaging story, but after bit of digging I found proof. A cartoon that was published in the March 1614 issue of The New Yorker magazine clearly shows a Hudsonian Curlew wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Thanks for the new name, Jebediah.” Apparently, the curlew liked the name because in the cartoon the bird is smiling and giving the thumbs-up. Poor Jebediah. The New Yorker should be ashamed.

Okay, fine, that story isn’t true. In 1614 The New Yorker didn’t have bird cartoons. Here’s the real, but less interesting story. Like so many birds Whimbrels get their name from their call. The bird’s high-pitched voice is kind of wimpy or whimpering. The bird with the whimpering call eventually became known as a “Whimbrel.” Really. I guess it could have been worse. They could have called the bird a “Wimpy.” That would have been tough to live with. Whimbrels are curlews, and curlews are sandpipers, and sandpipers are shorebirds. Got that? There are eight different species of curlews in the world, although a few of those species, like North America’s Eskimo Curlew, may no longer exist. The plumage of most curlews is nothing special. They are mostly different shades of speckled brown. But they do have one feature that sets them apart from the other sandpipers. Curlews have long, down-curved bills that look like small, facial sickles, or the nose of poor Jebediah Whimbrel.

Whimbrels are the most common curlew seen along the East Coast, with “coast” being the key word. Whimbrels love the coastline and are rarely seen far from it. Whimbrels don’t crave the shoreline for the view, or to build trophy homes on it, or to drive SUVs all over it. But they do love seafood. In particular, Whimbrels adore fiddler crabs. They can’t get enough of them. In fact, their odd-shaped bill seems to have evolved for the purpose of snagging these crabs. Fiddler crabs dig tunnels in the sand in order to hide from danger, and the bird’s bill fits perfectly into these tunnels. The captured crabs are swallowed whole or in large pieces. A Whimbrel’s gizzard is more than capable of grinding up crab shells, and therefore, there is no need for it to pry out the meat. However, the fussy birds will often try to rinse off any extra sand before swallowing the crab. They will also dip the crab in melted butter, if it’s available.

The Whimbrels’ name may have been derived from their whimpering call, but the birds themselves are pretty darn tough. Each summer large numbers of these birds descend on the salt marshes of Cape Cod, as well as other costal locations, to chow down on the aforementioned fiddler crabs. After spending several days resting and feeding, the Whimbrels will continue their journey south. When I say “south,” I’m not talking about a short trip to Rhode Island or even Florida. Some Whimbrels leave Cape Cod and don’t touch land (or water) again until they reach the shores of South America, a distance of 2,500 miles.

There once was a time when birders were impressed with this nonstop flight, but recent studies at The College of William & Mary have revealed that the Whimbrels’ spring migration is even more amazing. A bird named “Winnie,” that was tagged with a satellite transmitter in Virginia, apparently flew nonstop to the breeding grounds near Alaska, 3,200 miles away. Wow! I can understand why birds don’t stop on their journey south; they fly over the open ocean, where there’s no place to land. But Winnie flew across the continent. She could have stopped to rest at any point, but she didn’t. Startled researchers tried to figure out why Winnie was in such a hurry to get to the breeding grounds. They theorized that she must have accidently eaten a load of oysters instead of fiddler crabs. Yup, that would do it.

Being able to identify Whimbrels is helpful because they are found all over the world. Whimbrels may be seen in the Americas, plus Europe, Siberia, Africa and even Australia. It should be noted that the Siberian Whimbrels have a white rump, while ours have a brown rump. Keep that in mind, Lewis. If you ever see a white-rumped Whimbrel in your area, you should contact the authorities immediately. It could be one of those Russian spies we’ve heard so much about recently. Even though Whimbrels have never been convicted of espionage, why take the chance?




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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