Monday 23 October 2017

Bird of courage title for lapwing

THE hard weather reminds me of lapwings, or peewits (vanellus vanellus) and the awful winter-spring of 1947 when, as a schoolboy, I ate one.

They were called plovers, collectively flocked in with 'golden' and 'ringed' and others whose specific names were not known.

My bird was frozen in a field, but alive, and I took it home to thaw it out in the oven of the kitchen range. It expired so we plucked it, my mother and I, and roasted it.

There was miniscule white breast and dark thigh meat, barely enough to cover a slice of bread. It was tasty, like chicken.

Many birds were dead in the fields then. Ice remained in frozen corners until Easter. Children slid on ponds and made tracks for speed runs on paths and in schoolyards.

The lapwing is an attractive and unusual bird and it is unfair, I feel, that some poets have been disparaging because of what is a natural instinct. An Elizabethan named Chester wrote about the bird's "piteous mournful cry" and that it is "full of craft and subtlety".

And, earlier, there was Chaucer on about "the false lapwing, full of trecherye." Chester also noted the bird "weepeth most being farthest from her young." Naturally! And as for "trecherye" the lapwing will employ all its guile to protect its young and habitat.

So will other birds. I have watched mallard in a field scrambling off with pitiful cries, dragging a wing as if broken, away from a nesting place when disturbed. With short, broken spasms of flight the flapping mother sought to entice away men and dogs, escaping from a spaniel's mouth by a flight feather.

Birds of deceit? Birds of courage, more likely.

This attitude of disapproval comes from a time when collecting plovers' eggs for the hotel trade was a profitable rural business, a thriving enterprise that almost wiped out the birds in the 19th Century.

Plovers' eggs were considered a delicacy and appeared on menus until well after the Second World War. The birds survived but they are fewer.

These days the sight of a wheeling black-and-white flapping line of birds following a tractor turning the ground is a rare sight. Numbers of native birds have fallen by about 50pc to 20,000, according to some estimates and rare flocks spotted now are probably visitors from northern Britain and Russia.

The population crash has been likened to the 'skylark syndrome' – industrial farming with cereal sowing in winter rather than spring with grain ankle high in March when birds seek ploughed land to begin breeding.

There is an image of the attractive lapwing on the cover of the RSPB's Handbook of British Birds with its colouring of black-and-white, iridescent dark green and cinnamon undertail and distinctive swept-back crest.

I remember seeing hundreds in ploughland, almost standing as statues, then, singly, and in small groups, trotting forward with short, rapid runs to pounce on earthworms, beetles, spiders and snails turned up by the plough.

The 19th Century Cork naturalist, Rev F O Morris, wrote about a lapwing as a household pet, wintering in a kitchen with a cat and dog for company. I hope it escaped the pot!

Sunday Independent

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