Into the blue: a rare bird

The IUCN red list says that the Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius, also called the Sociable Plover) is critically endangered. It goes on to record that there are around 11,200 adult birds of this species alive. It used to winter over a large part of north-western India, and in earlier times could be spotted in the vicinity of Mumbai. The first reports of V. gregarius in India date back to the beginnings of the keeping of records of bird sightings in the mid- and late-19th century CE. In this century the sudden decline of these birds has resulted in larger awareness, and meticulous counting and recording of flocks. Nowadays they are mostly visible in semi-dry areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

I was with a group of birders traveling to the Rann of Kutch in January this year, when we took a detour to Nal Sarovar. This is a lake near Ahmedabad, and well-known to birders of the city. But our target was not the lake. Flocks of Sociable Lapwings had been seen in fields nearby. They are field-nesting birds. In their nesting range in Kazakhstan they have been observed to preferentially nest in grazed fields, and therefore remain close to the sparse human habitation of the area. A very detailed study of the mortality of chicks concluded that only one out of 8 eggs survives to become a fledged bird, and that the greatest danger to a nest is accidental trampling by livestock.

Sure enough, the birds were in cultivated fields full of the stubble left after harvesting. We saw a flock of over 50 birds. Looking at recent bird counts, this is unusual. They were disturbed and skittish, not allowing us to come very close. Walking across plowed fields is difficult, so every time they settled somewhere we took a while to reach them. Then they would fly again. I got a few bad shots, as you can see, but enough to enable us to recognize the birds as plovers (which the lapwings are), and to get a sense of the colours and identifying marks. Although I was unhappy with the photos, I was happy enough with the sighting.

The reason why these birds prefer grazed land was found in the early 20th century by Salim Ali, who, by combining field observations and examination of the contents of the stomachs of these birds found that they eat insects which they can peck at easily when the ground is grazed. The remarkable decline of this species in the 1990s has therefore been attributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the corresponding decrease in large-scale mechanical collectivized farming and rise hunting of natural grazers. As a result of these changed practices the birds now remain close to cattle which trample on their nests while grazing.

It seems to me that the agricultural practices of the Soviet Union may have led to a population explosion in Sociable Lapwings, and the current decline may be a return to older levels. If one can find bird counts from the 19th century then one can check out this line of reasoning. This also raises the question of long-term management of ancient farmed landscapes of the old world, which harbour many species which have come to depend on this anthropogenic landscape.

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