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The screamers in the sky are lapwings

Lapwings’ alarms have saved many a bird and game from hunters

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
April 4, 2021 6:24:27 am
Did ye really do it?: Lapwings can curse and camouflage with ease. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

Time and again, this is what happens: there you are, using your best commando technique and wearing camouflage colours, and yet clearly traceable. Inch by inch you make for the reeds, from where you can hear the contented murmur of ducks. Your camera is primed and you’re looking for a gap, so you can catch a glimpse of your subjects. And then, just as you raise the camera, all hell breaks loose.
A black, brown and white bird about the size of a kite, with rapidly fluttering wings is suddenly above you, screaming “did-ye-do-it, did-ye-do it, did-ye-do it?” as though you’d just slaughtered a puppy. Worse, it’s soon joined by its partner, and then, one by one, both start dive-bombing you, screaming imprecations. Ahead, with a great frothy bluster of wings, the waterfowl blast off.

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Welcome to the red-wattled lapwing: a medium-sized plover, black, white and brown — with tints of bronze — yellow legs and a red-tipped black bill. Its most prominent feature are the blood-red wattles on its face and large liquid-film starlet eyes. And, of course, the hissy fits it throws, especially between the months of March and August, when it rears its young.

Lapwings lay stone-coloured “peg” shaped eggs — usually three or four, in a shallow indentation usually on bare, stony ground; the eggs and rocks around it are usually a perfect match. The only way you could perhaps, do any damage is accidental, not that the parent birds will permit you to come close.

Ah, but the idiots haven’t quite thought this through have they? If you are deliberately looking for lapwings’ eggs or chicks, and you meet a hysterical pair, you know you are in the right place. The closer you get the more hysterical and obstreperous the birds become.
Eventually, they may even land nearby and stagger away, holding a wing out as though it’s broken. They’re inviting you to chase them away, from their home and babies. This famous ploy is used by several ground-nesting birds to deter predators.

I’ve accidentally stumbled across lapwings “nests” on a few occasions, even while being roundly cursed and dive-bombed and the eggs really are as well camouflaged as the flak jacket any commando would be proud to own. The chicks, too, cute fluffy balls, are splotched and blotched, and when stationary, just vanish uncannily amidst the clods. They’re nidifugous, in that they don’t have to be fed every five minutes, but are able to run around and pick up tidbits (insects, spiders, grain) from the ground on their own, right after hatching. But yes, the babies still need their parents.

On one trip to a park in Delhi, I was brought to a halt by a lapwing, which appeared to have six legs. I looked again. Yes, six legs, and they all moved in unison. Suddenly, two pairs of legs detached themselves from the bird and two chicks emerged from under their mom and blithely began looking for tidbits.

The red-wattled lapwing are found throughout India, usually, near water bodies (it is a wader), has a smartly upright posture and stays on the ground — it can’t perch on branches. It also patrols fields, lakesides, large parks and open grounds, darting ahead in spurts and then standing to attention and niftily snapping up something that’s caught its eye.

They are accustomed to an urban lifestyle, often nest on terraces and porticos of residences — and I suspect there is at least one pair nesting in the cemetery, which my bedroom overlooks. Often, late on moonlit nights, I hear them screaming (joined by the peacocks) and can only conclude that the several ghosts inhabiting the cemetery have probably just rollicked back after a night out at the ‘Rattlin’ Bones’ Dance Bar. They may also nest in fields and even golf courses, and if the eggs are in danger of being trodden upon (by us or bovines), must be gradually moved away from the danger spots, even at the risk of aerial bombardment at the time.

Thankfully, the birds become more civilised and quiet in winter — after the chicks have become independent — though there is always bright-eyed alertness about them. In winter, they may congregate in flocks of up to 200 birds, usually less and may just let you off with a “tit-tit-tit” warning call.

Birders find the lapwing exasperating, but it’s worth wondering how many ducks, geese, and other waterfowl and game, lapwings may have saved from hunters by setting off their alarm in time. Hopefully, the waterfowl would fly away from the waiting guns, realising where the threat emanated from, by the position of the screaming, circling birds. Then, happily, blue language rather than gun smoke would surely fill the air!

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