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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Down in the Jungleland: Watch Out, It’s the Titehri

Lapwings can give any wedding band a run for its money. But their shrill panicked calls might have saved many animal lives.

Written by Ranjit Lal |
Updated: April 3, 2016 12:23:21 am
bird watching, titehri, lapwing, sentinel of forests, Mother Nature, bird behaviour, mating, parenting, nesting Lapwings spend most of the day standing sentinel and playing statue — keeping their big soulful eyes on the goings-on around them.

There you are — step by stealthy step approaching the jheel — your lens steady on the waterfowl murmuring in the shallows and wondering if the duck you’ve homed in on is indeed a gorgeous, rare, falcated teal. Another step and you’ll get a clear view and clear shot. Another step and…

“Did-ye-do-it? Did-ye-do-it? Did-ye-do-it?”

The plangent scream makes your lens wobble wildly and the ducks ahead take off en masse in a roar of panicked wing-beats. That infernal nuisance — the red-wattled lapwing — has struck again!

It’s a bird that has sabotaged innumerable birding quests — if you’re out birding and have one (or more) keeping you company, you may as well as be birding with a baraati band preceding you. The lapwing — for all its familiarity with us — is neurotic about its security and leaps up screaming and hyperventilating the moment it senses a step towards it. And this is the time of year — summer — when it is at its most hysterically vigilant.

It’s a tall — just over a foot — leggy bird, a handsome bronze on top, white below, with huge, black, film-starlet eyes and a blood-red globule  — a wattle — in front of each eye and a white band running behind it. Very straightforward, it runs about stiffly and never bends its knees while bending down to snap up insects and small fry from the ground.
Lapwings are found all over the country — usually near water. In Hindi, they’re called titiri or titehri. They belong to the great plover khandaan — which includes such less common and better behaved members as the rather goofy looking yellow-wattled lapwing and the handsome, somewhat Napoleonic, river lapwing. They fly relatively slowly, with strange fluttering butterfly-like wing-beats.

Lapwings nest in summer and I’ve often wondered whether their heightened state of hysteria at this time is due to the foolish genius they display in choosing a nesting site. It could be a scrape — encrusted with dry dung — in the middle of a field, just off a pathway, in stony outcrops, on a garbage dump, next to a railway line or on the parapet below your bedroom window. Even if it is superlatively concealed in plain sight as it were, it is usually in a place well frequented by people or animals and that gives the lapwing the heebie-jeebies. The parent birds just completely lose it and freak out and give the game away. The moment you approach even remotely close, they flap all over your head, dive-bomb you and scream their lungs out, making you instantly aware that somewhere nearby lie three or four beautifully camouflaged peg-shaped lapwing eggs waiting to be poached! If the parent birds just sat doggo, no one would have been the wiser. Whatever, lapwings seem to be doing pretty well so the strategy seems to be working no matter how daft the logic appears to be.

The birds make good parents though. On blistering summer days, they will soak their breast and tummy feathers in water and go sit on the eggs — thus stopping them from being cooked.

Lapwings spend most of the day standing sentinel and playing statue — keeping their big soulful eyes on the goings-on around them. It’s only towards evening — or early morning — that they get actively hungry. They love flying around on full-moon nights, screaming, and when they do this over the next-door cemetery at three in the morning, it can make you shift around uneasily in your bed. Who exactly is moving around there at this godforsaken hour and what unspeakable horrors are the birds accusing them of?

But look at it another way and we might discover that Mother Nature may have a larger, more ingenious plan in mind. Apart from birding trips, red-wattled lapwings have probably sabotaged innumerable hunting trips, too, for the ‘sportsman’ with the shotgun too will have been compromised by this shrill accuser. And that — in turn — would have saved the lives of all his intended victims.

To maintain its reputation as sentinel of fields and forests and hill and dale, the lapwing will have to ensure that it only has hysterics when the danger is real — it could otherwise not be taken seriously by other creatures. So far I have to say they’ve been doing a pretty good job.

You can often hear them flying around Parliament House screaming, and these days, especially, circling over the flattened, beleaguered floodplains of the Yamuna, yelling, “Did-ye-do-it? Did-ye-do-it? Did-ye-do-it?”

I’m afraid he did.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.

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