Red knots are shorebirds that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has described as "the largest 'peeps' in North America." They are renowned for their incredible migratory travels. In fact, they fly the equivalent of the distance to the moon and back-----18,000 miles covered by just a 20-inch wingspan-----during their entire lifetime, which is why they are also known as "moonbirds."
Their long migration pattern spans from South America's southern tip of Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic, so these birds are hardy critters.
Unfortunately, red knots have become an endangered species because man has disrupted their normal cycle.
Along their migratory path, the red knots make very few stops, and one of these traditional sojourns happens to be the Delaware Bay, where they feed on horseshoe-crab eggs in the sand to maintain their weight for the final stage of their migration. Indeed the Delaware Bay is a traditional staging ground for red knots because of an "ancient synchronicity" between the red knots' arrival during the horseshoe crab spawning season.
However, man's commercial over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs has disturbed the red knot cycle and thereby threatened their very existence. Horseshoe crabs are not only prized as fishing bait, but they are also sought by pharmaceutical companies. Horseshoe crabs have copper-rich blood utilized by laboratories to experiment on various drugs and medical devices to prevent bacterial contamination.
The New York Times reported the red knot population to have numbered 100,000 in the 1980s. But in the last ten years alone, the red knot population has critically declined by 80 percent so that they now only number a vulnerable few 25,000 individuals. And as time passes, their numbers continue to plummet alarmingly.
Scientific models reveal it takes years for horseshoe crab populations to rebound, which in turn delays the red knot population recovery as well.
“The recovery of the birds can’t really start until there are more crabs,” said Lawrence J. Niles, a conservation biologist. “We can’t wait decades. We need more crab eggs now.”
Unless legislation is passed soon to halt the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs by humans, these beauteous red knots will slowly wither away from lack of food at their critical stopover point in the Delaware Bay, where they put on the necessary ounces to complete their migration northward to the Arctic for a sustainable breeding season. Should these lovely “moonbirds” vanish, we’ll have lost such marathon avian powerhouses, and posterity will be left with only wisps of a wondrous memory left for the imagination.