Urban Wildlife Series: Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus)

If you have ever been in a peaceful slumber, only to be suddenly woken up by what sounds like a bicycle bell on steroids… then there’s definitely a red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) near you. These leggy birds are known for their peculiar, yet highly obnoxious and accusatory call which sounds like “did-he-do-it” which has earned them the nickname of the did-he-do-it bird or as it is known locally, Kiralaa (or more specifically rath/රත් (red) yatimal/යටි මල් (wattled) kiralaa/කිරළා). Note that the stress is on the “L” sound in Kiralaa. If you don’t stress the “L” hard, it sounds like “kirala or කිරල” which means “Mangrove Apple”. Mangrove apples are used to make a refreshing, cooling drink by mixing its pulp with coconut milk which is quite popular in the down-south region of Sri Lanka.

Red-wattled lapwings are distributed through a large area stretching from West Asia to certain parts of Southeast Asia. They are often seen as couples or trios, and occasionally groups ranging from 20 – 200 individuals. They feed mainly on invertebrates picked from the ground, and have quite a peculiar way of picking food off the ground. If you look closely, they look like a drunk person trying to collect his fallen keys without bending properly, teetering on the edge of falling on his face. They would also run in short blinding bursts rather than walk calmly, much like my two year old niece.

There is no distinct sexual dimorphism between males and females to identify them easily (males are slightly larger and their wing length is approximately 5% longer, but good luck trying to measure that in the field). Males court females by puffing their feathers and pointing their beaks upwards towards the sky, which ends with a shuffle around the female. During nesting season, red-wattled lapwings are masterful deceivers, and are able to lure away predators and herbivores who stray too close to their nests. They’d either feign a weakness pointing out that they are an easy target or would circle around calling “did-he-do-it” repeatedly, until the threat moves away. If the theatrics don’t work, they will literally dive bomb the threat like a WW2 era Stuka / Douglas SBD aiming for the soft parts (like eyes and ears).

The main reason for these aggressive and impressive tactics is because they only make their nests on the ground (these look more like a small hole in the ground than a nest because they would even lay eggs in deep footprints left by water buffalo. Lazy much?), thus leaving them at the mercy of technically anything that moves (How ingenious and aggressive the tactics are, lapwing eggs have a high mortality rate compared to hatchlings). The eggs themselves have evolved with cryptic markings on them and the hatched chicks also have cryptic plumage, making them really hard to spot on the ground. Parents are observed to soak their belly feathers in water to cool their hatched chicks or their incubating eggs during exceptionally warm weather conditions.

Lapwing sitting on nest. Image by Sebastian-Kennerknecht.

The red-wattled lapwing is generally considered to be a loudmouth and is therefore despised by predators and welcomed by prey (like that one relative in every family) because it will call out any who comes near, be it day or night. It is hated by hunters and poachers for the same reason so in a way, it pitches in for the protection of wildlife in its own way.


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