Animals Opinion

Plovers in your backyard: It's no picnic

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When plovers are breeding, they swoop on anyone who goes near their nest (Image by Mark David)

Plucky plovers or avian hell-spawn? Mark David describes his experience of living with the "shouty" birds who share his home.

I GET YELLED at a lot. Not by people, but by plovers.

The moment I step into my living room, a pair of plovers outside stand up and start shrieking. The moment I step outside, they swoop. Shrieking and swooping — welcome to my world.

Readers of Independent Australia are by definition a well-informed lot, so I’m guessing you’ve heard about something called COVID-19. It’s been in the news. And one of the things about COVID-19 has been lockdowns — where you stay at home all the time.

Lockdowns are not popular. But try being in lockdown while being constantly shrieked at and swooped. Believe me when I say lockdowns get old faster that way. And yet the crazy thing is, I admire the plover.

But first, let me be a bit clearer about the bird I’m describing.

In textbooks, you’ll find it named Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles). We have the southern sub-species here in Sout East Queensland, so that entitles me to call it Spur-winged Plover. Although, not everyone you meet is going to call them dignified names like that.

Depending on one's experiences with plovers, I’ve heard people call them everything from "angry flappy-faced birds" to "avian hell-spawn". But in my neck of the woods, most people just call them plovers.

It all comes down to one thing: when the birds are breeding, they swoop on anyone who goes near their nest. And since they like to make their nest in open spaces like airstrips, playing fields or my backyard, that means lots of people get close enough to be swooped.

In the back yard at my place, plovers fly in three times a year to make more plovers. You’ll know there are eggs about because stepping outside any time of the day triggers plover sorties.

I will point out here that if I was offered a choice between being swooped by a plover or a magpie I would always choose the plover — because plover-swooping is mostly a game of bluff. And I feel entitled to say “mostly” because, in my ten years of living here, I don’t think I’ve met anyone who hasn’t been swooped by a plover but have only met one person who has actually been struck by one. Whereas when a magpie swoops, there’s a good chance it’s going to strike you.

How long does this swooping business last? Well, there’s the month before the eggs hatch and then it continues for another six weeks until the young ones fledge, at which point all the birds are able to fly away from things that scare them and so the flock calms down and the swooping stops. And so I get to calm down too.

Freshly hatched baby plover (Image by Mark David)

So, we’re talking ten weeks of being swooped per brood. Multiply that by three broods and you’ll understand how I spend 30 weeks a year – more than half of each year of this pandemic – being swooped. And yes, I still admire these birds.

Why? First, I’d like to stay with the theme of the pandemic a little longer. Health authorities have been urging us to wear face masks, right? For some people, that has proven too much of a burden. But plovers are fine with it. In fact, remember that they’re called Masked Lapwings? Plovers wear their face masks 24/7 as adornments that ornithologists call “wattles”.

I ask you, what bird would make you feel more comfortable during a pandemic than a species that comes with its own face mask?

Second, there are cute little newly-hatched chicks. Extraordinarily sweet little things, if anyone or anything threatened their livelihood I’d want to swoop them too. Imagine a ping-pong ball coated with long fluff and running around on tiny stilts and you’ve got an idea of how they look.

When plovers are nesting I will mow around them, avoiding the actual nest and eggs. The way I see it, plovers were here before I was, which means I’m the interloper, not them. To be honest, I also like to minimise how much I disturb any kind of nesting bird. As a protected native species I like to think they are safe in my backyard.

It has meant literally years of my life being swooped and “yelled” at, but it’s also led to every brood here managing to raise at least one young chick to adulthood.

I don’t have any plover-shaped dents in the back of my head yet, so I believe being shrieked at a bit is a small price to pay.

Mark David is IA's resident cartoonist. You can see more cartoons from Mark on his website Mark David Cartoons, or follow him on Twitter @mdavidcartoons.

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