The Lapwing is the most widespread of our breeding waders and a species associated with a wide range of open country habitats. These familiar birds mark the changing of the seasons; the arrival of migrating flocks signal the onset of cold winter weather and the tumbling display flight and ‘peewit’ call note the arrival of spring.
On the move
Lapwings from the western part of continental Europe make migratory movements in early winter, with birds moving west and south to reach areas with a mild, maritime climate. Many of these birds reach Britain and Ireland from late September through into November. Some of the earliest individuals to reach our shores will carry out their annual moult here but most moult before they cross the North Sea. The flocks wintering here may number many hundreds or even thousands of birds, the numbers influenced by weather conditions on the Continent. In fact, further waves of birds may reach us if the winter weather is particularly cruel.
Cold weather, and frosty conditions in particular, see birds relocate from farmland and onto estuarine sites, where food remains accessible. Birds may also leave Britain and Ireland altogether if things get really bad, to seek out better conditions in western France and Spain. Even with the possibility of shifting to more favourable sites, particularly cold winter weather can lead increased levels of mortality, as revealed by the work of Will Peach in the early 1990s. The winter visitors leave Britain and Ireland from March, overlapping with the period during which British- and Irish-breeding birds will be back on their breeding territories.
Out in the open
Breeding Lapwings nest in open country and prefer to have a good view from the nest, which is why nests are usually placed on a slight mound or hummock. The adults rely on the camouflaged patterning of their eggs and chicks, something that becomes more effective if the parent bird can spot a potential predator at a distance. The parents engage in active defence of their eggs and chicks by either flying at a potential predator or by enacting a distraction display, the latter often an attempt to lead the predator away from the nest’s location. Nesting Lapwings may also modify their behaviour if they are being watched by a human observer, for example by making ‘false nest visits’ to an area that is not the nest. This is a behaviour shared with several other species, including the Robin.
Lapwing chicks leave the nest, which is a simple shallow scrape, soon after hatching. This reduces predation risk and also enables the family to move into vegetation that is more suitable for the chicks (e.g. because it supports a greater abundance of invertebrate prey). Chick mortality is thought to be an important factor in Lapwing decline – the species has seen a decline in its breeding population of 53% in the last 25 years. Loss of breeding and feeding habitat, some of which has been linked to the change from spring to autumn sowing and the drainage of wet grassland sites, appears to be the driver behind this and is something that could be addressed through the development of appropriate management options within agri-environment schemes.
What’s in a name?
One of the features of the Lapwing is the number of local names associated with the species. Peewit and Green Plover are probably the most familiar of these, and both are used widely across England and Scotland, but others are more local in their application. Some of the most colourful are ‘Tieve’s Nacket’ (Shetland), ‘Toppyup’ (Borders), and ‘Lappy’ (Yorkshire). In addition to these local names, the Lapwing also features in folklore and literature. It is portrayed as a deceitful bird in Chaucer, where it is said to be ‘ful of trecherye’, and ‘plover’ was used in the 17th Century as a nickname for prostitutes and other ‘deceitful women’. Such associations linger on even today – the collective noun for a flock of Lapwings being ‘a deceit’. That local name ‘Tieve’s Nacket’, mentioned earlier, means ‘thieves imp’.
In addition to name calling, the Lapwing has also suffered more directly at our hands, with birds and their eggs harvested over many centuries. During the 1860s, in excess of 3,00 eggs were being harvested annually from one large country estate near the BTO’s headquarters in Thetford. By 1902, fewer than 100 eggs were being taken from this estate, underlining the impact that such a large harvest was having on the species. Surprisingly, Lapwings eggs can still be harvested under licence, the season over which they can be taken ending on 15th April, though very few are actually taken.