by Jagath Gunawardana
The Red-wattled Lapwing is the commonest and the most widespread wading bird in Sri Lanka. It is better known by its distinct four-part call that has earned it nicknames such as ‘Did-he-do-it’, ‘Pity-to-do-it’, and ‘Pewit’.
It is yet another bird that has adapted itself well to the changes brought about by man and has benefitted hugely by being able to expand in the range and increase their numbers in the process of adaptation to the changes.
It is a ground dwelling bird that usually associate in pairs but can be seen as family parties (parents and young) or small flocks comprising up to 20 individuals at times. Each pair has a well-defined territory on the ground and is guarded by the chasing away of other lapwings that intrude in to the area. It has never being observed attacking other lapwings but would readily attack other intruders at times. It has a slow gait but can run fast when needed. A very vigilant bird, it is always looking around and alert to the slightest movement and sound, and therefore, it is impossible to come near one without being detected. It is especially alert at night and responds to the slightest disturbance by making loud, continuous calls and taking to flight, alerting all animals in the vicinity. This serves as a great early warning system for other animals but is hated by hunters.
The Red-wattled Lapwing prefers wide open spaces such as fields, grasslands, mudflats, beaches, scrublands and man-made habitats such as paddy fields, playgrounds and roads. In forest areas, it is found in the open borders and fringes but never inside the thick forests. Although it is a wadder that readily ventures into shallow waters and mud, it shows a marked preference for dry open spaces. In paddy fields, it is usually seen on the raised bunds and not in the muddy shallows. In addition to the well-known four-part call, it has a variety of other call notes such as a continuous ‘Kik-Kik’, a long-drawn ‘Keek-Keek’, and a solitary ‘Kik’ that is uttered at intervals. Both sexes are similar in size and colour and are equally vociferous, making it impossible to discern sexes in the field. Its flight is slow with deep wing beats but can fly fast with rapid continuous flapping of wings, and it can dive bomb with utmost precision to hit an adversary and can take a neat U-turn just before hitting to scare away.
It feeds on a wide variety of small creatures such as flies, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, crustaceans and worms that are found on the ground and shallow waters. Prey is picked up by quickly dipping forward rather than bending down with the knees. When food is plentiful, they can be seen engaged in a continuous series of short runs and dips. They prefer cowpats as they harbour a lot of small insects and worms that are a plentiful source of food. When one finds a cowpat, it methodically throws away piece by piece to expose creatures within and finishes them off before reaching out to throw another. It always works from the rim to the center of the cowpat in a methodical manner.
Strategic protection of offspring
The breeding season, as declared by G.M. Henry (1971,) is during the South-West monsoon period, June being the favourite month for egg laying. According to John Harrison (2010), it is from April to September – the same period as stated by W.W.A. Phillips as well. However, my observations during the past two decades in both dry and wet zones show that it has resorted to breeding throughout the year with definite peaks in the periods of March to May and again from August to September. Eggs are laid on a depression on bare land and it does not even make a rudimentary nest. The eggs are elliptical, which makes them roll in a tight circle around the narrow end, and thus, prevents them from rolling away. Each brood has four eggs and are always placed with the narrow ends placed in, facing each other, to form a cross. The eggs are light brown, grey-brown or yellowish-brown with dark brown, purplish-brown or black blotches, providing an excellent camouflage. Both birds share the role of incubating eggs and guarding the brood.
There is a widely believed myth that the lapwings incubate their eggs by placing their backs over the eggs while turning upside down with the legs pointing up. There is also another belief that the legs are held up to prevent the sky from falling down on the eggs. This myth was so persistent that there is even a ten cent stamp depicting a lapwing on its back. However, one can occasionally see a lapwing adopting this position in order to ward off an attacking bird and protect the eggs. The lapwing attacks an intruder coming from the sky with its sharp claws and takes up this position in order to effectively aim its sharp-clawed long toes with at the enemy, usually aiming them at the head of the adversary.
Red-wattled Lapwings adopt several strategies to guard their eggs and offspring. They differ according to the intruders. An approach by a human being makes the incubating bird quietly stand up and move away quickly to watch from a safe distance, and if the person continues to move towards the eggs, the bird will call excitedly and may even fly around in low circles so that the attention is drawn to the bird. A dog would be invariably dive bombed, first with an attack and thereafter with vicious pecking. Other large animals would be distracted by the bird calling and a broken-wing stance as if is injured and in distress. Hawks and crows are be attacked near the nest with the bird’s claws.
Commonest of the species
The Red-wattled Lapwing is found in all climatic zones of the country and wherever there is a wide open area for them to dwell in. They are quite used to having human beings around but will never ever lose vigil. They even breed in crowded places such as playgrounds. In a number of towns, they were seen breeding on the flat roofs of tall buildings, a rather unusual adaptation by a ground dwelling and ground breeding bird. They take long flights at night and their continuous calls can be heard even in areas in which they are not seen during the day. This is the reason why it can be heard in busy towns at night. Vincent Legge (1880) stated that it is a widely distributed species throughout the low country and a visitor to the hills, and according to G.M. Henry (1971), it is found all throughout the low country but is a casual straggler to the hills. However, it is now a common breeding resident in all areas of the hill country and has been consistently seen even in the Horton Plains National Park since the late 1980s. The clearing of forests and the periodic burning of montane habitats has helped greatly to spread in the hills.
*Lapwings belong to the family Charadriidae and the Red-wattled Lapwing is the largest and commonest member of the family in Sri Lanka. There are fourteen species belonging to the family recorded from Sri Lanka.
*The Red-wattled Lapwing (Hoplopterus indicus) has several sub-species in the range of distribution, which ranges from the Indian subcontinent to Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and to Iran and Iraq.
* The subspecies found in Sri Lanka (Hoplopterus indicus lankae) is an endemic form and is smaller and darker than others.
*In Sinhala, it is known as the Kirala and Kiralla.
*In Tamil it is called Aalkaatti Kuruvi or Aalkaatti
*It is about 30 centimetres (12 inches) in length, or about the size of a domestic pigeon, but with long, slender legs.
*The legs have three, well-developed front toes ending with sharp nails, but the hind toe is greatly reduced.
*The short, stout beak has a slightly swollen tip.
*The head, neck, throat and breast are glossy black with a prominent white band running from behind the eye down the sides of the neck to breast.
*The red beak has a black tip and a prominent vermillion red patch of bare skin (wattle)that runs from the base of the beak to the eye and forms a red eye ring around the red eye.
*The back and wing coverts are sandy-brown.
*The feathers are black, and the secondary feathers have white bases that show up as a white wing bar during flight.
*The white tail has a broad, black band in the middle.
*The legs and feet are a dull yellow.
*Young birds have brown eyes, pink wattle, a light-coloured back and a grey head, neck and breast. The head has some white streaks. Courtesy: Ceylon Today