The yellow-wattled lapwing ( Vanellus malabaricus ) is now scarcely seen in Chennai and its vicinage, much less its courtship march.
In comparison to the red-wattled lapwing ( Vanellus indicus) — which is the other resident lapwing in these parts — the yellow-wattled lapwing is of reduced dimensions and low-slung.
The lapwing with the red wattle is indisputably bigger, and aided by its more erect bearing, looks a tad bigger than it actually is. Standing bolt upright, it exudes an air of assertiveness, and is more responsive to what is happening around it.
In contrast, the yellow-wattled lapwing can stand transfixed for a markedly long passage of time, and break the sedentary attitude with a sudden shuffling movement. Launching into a short burst of movement only to bring it to a grinding halt is another of this bird’s idiosyncracies. What it lacks in stature it could have made up for, in bearing. But the yellow-wattled lapwing cuts the figure of someone who ignored sound advice from elders and failed to correct a hunch, carrying it well into adulthood.
So, given the relative lack of size and a rather unimpressive deportment, the yellow-wattled lapwing’s courtship march brings with it a huge element of surprise, as it is marked by briskness and assertiveness.
Drawing an anthropomorphic parallel, it approximates to a one-row, moderately-paced march by soldiers.
Years ago, birder E Arun Kumar was witness to a courtship display by a group of four yellow-wattled lapwings in Nayapakkam, near Chennai, at the beginning of a breeding season in mid-March.
He was treated to a rounded performance, as it came complete with other elements known to go with the courtship march — notably, the calls the yellow-wattled lapwings let out as they match strides with each other; and how the effort culminates in a mock-feeding ritual.
Clued into the significance of the display, having read and heard about it, Arun Kumar did not let that moment pass without recording it in pixels.
Ornithologist V. Santharam has watched this community courtship behaviour by yellow-wattled lapwings many years ago at what is now MRC Nagar. He also brings a similar first-person report from elsewhere, with a different lapwing species though.
Santharam explains: “I have seen this behaviour with the river lapwing in March 2020, at Rajghat in Varanasi where KFI’s sister school Rajghat Besant School is located right on the bank of the Ganges. We just took a boat and went into the river for a short ride and then, on one of the islands, we saw a large number of river lapwings. They would march in one direction and then meet at one point and would be calling all the time and then they would all take off. It could be the males alone or both.”
Salim Ali and S D Ripley’s Handbook of Birds of India and Pakistan, Vol. 2 . reports two observations of a similar display by a river lapwing ( Vanellus duvaucelii) flock. The species was known in earlier times as the spur-winged lapwing. Highights of these courtship displays — as narrated by “independent observers” — included pirouettes and also mock duels, and of course, had the defining military-type march.
The July/ August 1999 edition of Newsletter For Birdwatchers carried an engaging account of a community courtship display by yellow-wattled lapwings from the Indian Institute of Science (IIS) campus at Bangalore. It took place on an abandoned airstrip on the premises. There are two points in this report — penned by the Editor and attributed to Vikram Gadagkar, Shyamal L, NV Arakeri, Mukund Ramakrishnan, Ankur Kumar and Uday Raghavan — that need to be brought into focus. One, it paints a heart-warming picture of how the precincts of this airstrip provided something approximating to an ideal environment for the yellow-wattled lapwings — “arid grassland”, as the report puts it. The yellow-wattled lapwing is associated with dry and open habitat, which contrasts with what the red-wattled lapwing is at home with. (Yet rarely, the yellow-wattled lapwing may occur in the same space as the red-wattled lapwing). Much of what comes across as wasteland could suit the yellow-wattled lapwing. “Reclaiming” so-called wasteland through tree-planting drives is one of the factors arrayed against this species.
Back at the IIS campus, this report points out that the yellow-wattled lapwings had turned the space into their hearth, as sightings of adult birds of the species with their chicks were almost a given during the breeding season. At the beginning of the breeding season in 1994, on the airstrip, these birds were seen engaging in what clearly appeared to be communal courtship behaviour. The report first describes a march by four yellow-wattled lapwings to the accompaniment of clamourous calls. A group of four other birds join in, and the short exercise culminates in pairs being formed.
Recent accounts by birdwatchers suggest that males alone engage in the strident march to impress the female. However. the question still remains if the female birds also participate in the march (or at least any of the allied demonstrations) bringing a co-gender character to it.
With more eyeballs, deeper meanings of this jaw-dropping courtship behaviour can be unscrambled.
(‘Resident Watch’ discusses the fascinating lives of the resident birds of Chennai and surrounding districts)