Haunting, mournful and eerie are words often used to describe the night-time calls of the enigmatic curlew.  It’s little wonder these birds are shrouded in myths about death and mourning. Also known as “wailing women”, the bird’s cry often represents a mother grieving over the loss of her child.

But it’s the birds themselves that are becoming myths as their woodlands are disturbed and the large flocks of yesteryear dwindle to isolated pairs.  It’s mournful that this shy and gentle creature has been scared onto the endangered species list.

If you walk quietly across our lawn, and cast your eyes into the orchard, there by the pile of fallen branches you’ll find a family of bush-stone curlews.

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Bush-stone Curlew (Burhinus grallarius) Credit: Mischievous Magpie

We know they’re around when a typical evening’s squabbles and hoots are suddenly silenced by a supernatural keening.  It’s the cheerful dirge of curlews courting on our moonlit lawn. Later their frenzied screaming is accompanied by the doleful falsetto of chicks exploring the upper ranges of their spine-chilling repertoire.

We creep around in the dark, delighted to catch the occasional glimpse of them skulking, dashing and freezing, like a family of feathered ghouls practicing their scaring techniques.

Curlews bond for life and adults share the care of their young.  We take a moment every morning to count the heads from afar and satisfy ourselves the chicks are alive and thriving.  But a couple of weeks ago one of the parents disappeared.

Is that eerie keening now grief for the loss of a partner and mother?

The remaining adult may live out its 30 years; perhaps bring a new mate to our orchard and woo us all again with moonlit wailing.

Or we may never again enjoy the company of curlews and that really would be something worth mourning.

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