The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 29, 2001

If you do not watch out, the birds wont sing
Baljit Singh

IN the last week of April, 2001, I spotted seven nesting pairs of the red-wattled lapwing. There is a 20-metre-long broad strip of land towards the left of the Jan Marg which leads from the Rose Garden to the Civil Secretariat. Four rows of trees create three magnificent avenues on this strip. The broadest avenue is the farthest from the Jan Marg and is flanked exclusively by silver oaks. Their boles, straight as a lance, reach out to the sky and are planted in plumb-line perfection. For comparative solitude and to experience the joy of quiet contemplation and feel the earth beneath ones shoes, this is the avenue to take. However, in April-May, this is also among the favoured breeding spaces of the lapwing. More often than not, you watch a lapwing, intent upon winning a mate, suddenly take wing, rising effortlessly way above the canopy of the silver oaks and letting out a full-throated song, as it glides and circles the sky. The next moment, on an impulse it descends on the avenue and engages its would-be mate in earnest conversation. Some naturalists have syllabised these clipped love-lorn utterances of the bird as "" or "did.. did..did.." which are kept up till wooing is accomplished.


The three surviving chicks of the lapwing
The three surviving chicks of the lapwing

The red-wattled lapwing is a very dainty and a delicate-looking bird. In some aspects it is also a dandy. That is, the way it flaunts its plumage and body contours. Most prominent on the first eye contact is the soft coal-black head, neck, throat and breast. The dominance of black is enhanced by the sharp contrast created by two snow-white, broad stripes starring at the ear coverts on both sides of the neck and vanishing under the wings. When you narrow your vision further, what shows up at once is the crimson-red facial wattle which joins up at the ends with two circles of the same colour around the eyes. For a while you wonder whether the tip of its otherwise red beak is covered by mud? But no; the tip is indeed greyish-black. What catches the eye next are its legs; bright yellow with a pale green tinge, straight and narrow as a beam of light, so fragile to look at and yet they support the entire body weight effortlessly even as the bird hinges forward in near bottoms-up posture, searching for food from the soil. In flight, the lapwing extends its legs full stretch beneath the tail and as it glides overhead, the intersection of legs over the broad subgerminal tail band makes a perfect image of the Cross. Involuntarily, you cross your heart and say "Amen", wishing long life to this species.

The Lapwing chick, when it is around a month old, is simply irresistible. The body structure and contours at this stage are much like a fuzzy soft ball balanced on the tip of almost invisible, long legs. As the ever-caring parents must often utter the sharp "ping" or "did," which also doubles up as an alarm, and instantly the chick could pass for a golfball, teed to perfection for the drive on the fair-way. Of course, the frequency modulations of the "ping" note are so vast and varied that it conveys the total survival bird language, a part of the genetic package that the chick is born with.

The threat to bird life is increasing
The threat to bird life is increasing

When danger exceeds the acceptable threshold, the parents sound another "ping" and the chick folds its legs like the jack knife and flattens his body into a small bump and vanishes from average human vision like Houdini. Take your eyes away for a second, there is just one in 10 chance that you may locate the bump again! The parents now wait and watch. Should the threat persist, they take to wing in an effort to detract the marauder away from the concealed chick. If danger notches up more, then one parent remains airborne while the other gets into the broken-wing-display on the ground. All this while, the air resounds with the unceasing crescendo of their accusing "did-he-do-it" calls. When nothing succeeds to deflect the intruder, as is often the case, then the parents play out the last desperate card, that is, dive-bom the predator, simultaneously from two different directions. Even though this activity for self preservation of the lapwing bears a strong genetic imprint, it is certainly no match for the predatory instincts of the Homo Sapiens, especially of the tribals among them. For instance, the tribesmen from Bihar, the work force at the construction site on the vacant plot on the campus of the Haryana MLA Hostel, had seized the significance of the "did-he-do-it" agitation of the lapwing on the silver oak avenue. The parent birds tried but failed to cover all the footprints. Two mahogany-brown, semi-clad, lithe youth were across the boundary wall in a trice, the brick and steel fencing with sharp spikes atop nothwithstanding. They homed straight on to the lone chick but hesitated from scooping it up because of my shouts of irrepressible rage. Physically, I was no match for the duo and many more of their compatriots watched the hunt from over the wall. Perhaps it was my frenzied anger that saved the chick by a mere whisker from death. Luckily, moments later a police bus dropped three uniformed constables at the nearby road intersection. I pleaded with them and they got into the act of instillng the fear of law among the wayward labourers.

Of the seven nesting lapwing pairs on this avenue, only two have succeeded in rearing progeny; a lone chick with one pair and a brace with another. From a clutch of two to four eggs, usually two to three hatch. As the nest is a shallow scrape on the ground itself (at times lines and rimmed with pebbles) what with crows, kites, cats and dogs (and now the tribesmen), many nests are destroyed during the 17 to 20-day-long incubation. The lapwing is biologically programmed to procreate in the months when temperatures in the open range between 40-45C. So the bird has had to evolve several interesting strategies to combat the extreme heat.

But with the ever-emerging threats to our bird life and nature in general, our first concern must be to create conditions favourable for their survival. In the present case, only three chicks have survived thus far. Will all three of them reach adulthood? Unless all of us mount the silent vigil all the time, Chandigarh may ultimately lose most of its bird heritage. Wont you stand up to preserve the colour and the song of our bird life. Are you listening?

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