“Did you do it?”, ask the red-wattled lapwings as pollution and encroachment overtake their habitat and threaten their survival
Red-wattled Lapwings — dainty birds standing tall on slender yellow legs and a red fleshy wattle in front of each eye — grazing for insects and worms in ponds, pastures, forest clearing or dry waterbeds were a common sight in our country even until a few years back. Rampant air and water pollution and encroachment of natural habitats for the sake of development is proving damaging for the lapwing's population that has already witnessed a sharp decline and faces a bleak future.
These birds generally nest on the ground and thus increased urbanisation is taking a toll on their natural environment. Their gradual disappearance could also affect human beings since the red-wattled lapwings help keeping harmful insects in control.
Says Sharad Khanna of Indian Wildlife Adventures from Gurgaon: “It is a pity we destroy designated barren countryside as wastelands and overlook the multitude of living creatures thriving in it”.
Once widely distributed across the Indian sub-continent, these birds have also fallen prey to the extensive use of pesticides and herbicides in agricultural lands presently.
Dr. Bharat Jethva, alumni of Wildlife Institute of India and a senior naturalist and ornithologist presently based in Gandhinagar, says that in the past decade, especially in and around small and big cities, we have lost undisturbed open spaces. This has put the red-wattled lapwings in dire straits as their ground habitat has excessive human penetration. Being sensitive to disturbance, the lapwings may have taken to nesting on rooftops to prolong their progeny survival.
The lapwings have an amazing technique of camouflaging their eggs on their ground nest to such an extent that they would remain undetected even if one is standing right in front of them. The female bird lays two to four blotchy brown eggs, which are half the size of chicken's eggs and perfectly match the gravel's colour, on the ground itself without any hint of straw or other nest-building material used by other birds.For an idle eye, these eggs on the ground are mere pebbles. This degree of difficulty in sighting eggs on an open ground obviously helps in dodging the prying eyes of predators.
These alert birds are active and wide awake even at night. They spend their time running about in jerky short spurts, stopping abruptly to pick up insects. Their normal flight is unhurried — attained by deliberate flapping of the wings and seldom at great height from the ground. When threatened or protecting their young, they are very fast and furious.
The characteristic loud calls rendered by them sounds like ‘Did-You-Do-It'. That's how the British, when they ruled India, spent their free time in observing birds and named this bird as Did-You-Do-It.
The red-wattled has a stance that is proud and pronounced with watchful awareness. The birds have black-tipped red bill and the tail is tipped black and in flight, prominent white wing bars are seen. Males and females are similar in plumage but males have longer wing span.
In ornithological parlance, Red-wattled Lapwing is Vanellus indicus and is usually found in pairs near ponds, pastures and dry waterbeds. It is also found in forest clearings and lawns looking for tidbits. Some local names include titeeri (Hindi), titodi (Gujarati), erra-t?tuva /chitawa (Telugu), aal-kaati (Tamil, meaning ‘human indicator').
The breeding season is March to August and courtship involves the male puffing its feathers and shuffling around the female to mount and engage. They have been recorded nesting even on the stones between the rails of a railway track, the adult leaving the nest when trains passed. When nesting, both the male and female take turns to incubate eggs and the birds will attempt to dive bomb or distract potential predators. They even put up the trick of luring away the threat by enacting the broken wing display.
To protect the eggs from the overbearing heat, the clever birds soak their belly feathers from the nearest pool to cool the eggs and provide water to the chicks as well. Interestingly, in some parts of India, it is believed that the bird sleeps on its back with legs skywards and an associated Hindi metaphor Titeeri se asman thama jaega! (Can the dim-wit support the heavens?) is used when referring to persons undertaking tasks beyond their ability or strength.