A Spoon-Billed Curiosity

A Spoon-billed sandpiper skin from the Yelsukov Collection in Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght

This Spoon-billed sandpiper hatched somewhere in the Arctic of northeastern Russia, in the spring of 1988, a diminutive fluff camouflaged among the tundra vegetation. A few months later she flew south for her first winter, aiming instinctively for the intertidal mudflats of Southeast Asia.

About two thousand miles into her journey—still in Russia—she found herself on a wide, sandy beach washed by the Sea of Japan. It was the first day of September, and she was mixed in with other migrating shorebirds, some possibly making this trip for the first time as she was. Someone else was on that beach that day: a young boy named Anton, and Anton had a slingshot.

The sandpiper never made it further south.

The boy, perhaps noticing the peculiar nature of her bill, brought the carcass to the local ornithologist, who preserved her, and the circumstances of her demise, as this museum specimen.

To be fair to Anton, when he killed this bird in 1988 the Spoon-billed sandpiper was not the most endangered shorebird species in the world, as it is now. It was not until 2004 that the species was listed as Endangered, and only in 2008 was it considered Critically Endangered. Today, fewer than 400 are thought to exist.

While Anton did not personally make Spoon-billed sandpipers endangered, the cumulative actions of indiscriminate hunters along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are why this species is on the verge of extinction today. All indications are that the recent and cataclysmic free-fall of the Spoon-billed sandpiper population is due to sustained hunting of these birds on migration and on their wintering grounds.

Efforts to keep Spoon-billed sandpipers from the yawning void of extinction have been nothing short of Herculean. Today, Russian conservationists guard breeding pairs on the Arctic tundra like pots of feathered gold, and English specialists struggle to breed them in captivityin case they disappear from the wild. In China, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, aggressive education campaigns aim to raise awareness of this species and provide economic alternatives to shorebird hunting.

Why so much focus devoted to this one shorebird species? The Nordmann’s greenshank, for example (named after a 19th century Finnish biologist with a soft spot for microscopic parasites) is nearly as endangered, with as few as 600 individuals left. While it seems to share much of the same wintering habitat with Spoon-billed sandpipers and faces the same conservation threats, this is probably the first time you’re hearing of one.

The reality is that the Nordmann’s greenshank is a dull, anonymous thing, indistinguishable to most eyes from the pulsing masses of sandpipers, stints, and redshanks flecking Asia’s shores during migration. It’s doesn’t have a special hook to attract our attention. Or, should I say, a spoon.

There’s something about that flared, spatulate bill that we find endearing, and humans are drawn to defend the charismatic, the peculiar, and the unique. For better or worse, this may be enough for Spoon-bills. Otherwise, the only Spoon-billed sandpipers we may soon see will be museum curiosities like this one, drawn from the sterile cabinets of species we could not save.

This post first appeared on Scientific American as part of my East of Siberia series.

Russian translation of this post, courtesy of Katya Nikolaeva, is available.

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