Article and images by Dr Julie O'Connor, senior conservation partnerships officer
Not just surviving, but thriving
There is no doubt that over much of urban Australia, the masked lapwing (Vanellus miles) has proven itself to be an adaptable survivor. It can often be seen in parks, sports fields, urban nature strips and even small traffic islands near busy motorways.
A study undertaken by researchers from Deakin University compared the breeding ecology of the masked lapwing in agricultural and urban settings. They found that despite investing more energy into defence, suburban females were in better condition (7% heavier) and laid slightly larger eggs than those in agricultural environments. While chick survival was similar in the two environments, the eggs of suburban females had a higher hatching success.
There are few of us who would not be familiar with the penetrating keer-kick-ki-ki-ki call of this tenacious little bird. The loud defence calls can be interpreted as “don’t come any closer”, and as such, form a fairly energy-efficient first line of defence. Their warning calls are often noted by other birds in the vicinity too. A writer to the Courier Mail in 1937 noted that duck-hunters hated spur-winged plovers, as they were then known, for their loud alarm calls “that all waterbirds understand and obey” (Courier Mail 3 July 1937).
It is also not above a little trickery if the warning calls fail to deter a potential predator. Like many other species in the Charadriidae family, the masked lapwing may feign injury to draw a potential predator away from its eggs or young. A parent might move a little way from the nest and loudly and conspicuously feign a broken wing or leg to distract the predator from the nest. They have even been known to pretend to defend a non-existent nest as a distraction.
In this socially monogamous species, incubation duties of 28-30 days are shared fairly equitably, although there are some subtle variations, including slightly shorter male incubation bouts. Some researchers have speculated that this may be due to variable territorial duties. Chicks are precocial and able to feed themselves immediately after hatching. However, they continue to be protected by the parents until they reach independence after around 8-10 months.
Masked lapwings, essentially native to Australia and New Guinea, have expanded their range naturally in recent decades. They are now quite well established in New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands, and Christmas Island. In 1997 a single bird was recorded on Ashmore Reef, and since 2005 small but increasing numbers have been recorded on East and West Timor and Flores. Its reception in New Zealand has been complex. After its first recorded breeding in Invercargill in 1932 it was afforded full protection as a native animal in 1946. As it expanded its range in New Zealand there was a corresponding increase in complaints from a wide variety of sectors in the community. Consequently, by 2010, it was stripped of its native protection to become one of only two native birds (the other being the black-backed gull) to lack protection under New Zealand law.
Although the masked lapwing is thriving in human habitats, the urban environment can sometimes create some unusual dangers. A few years ago on an exceptionally hot summer day, a colleague and I were called to rescue two recently hatched chicks who had their tiny feet stuck fast into the almost melted road tarmac in a residential suburb. While we felt there was something humbling and heart-warming about gently massaging mayonnaise into their tiny little feet to remove the tar, their parents were less than impressed. For the entire rescue mission, both parents kept up a barrage of screaming and diving until the chicks were safely back in their care.
- Cardilini AP, Weston MA, Nimmo DG, Dann P, Sherman CD. Surviving in sprawling suburbs: suburban environments represent high quality breeding habitat for a widespread shorebird. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2013 Jul 1;115:72-80
- Cardilini AP, Weston MA, Dann P, Sherman CD. Sharing the load: role equity in the incubation of a monomorphic shorebird, the masked lapwing (vanellus miles). The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. 2015 Dec;127(4):730-3
- New Zealand Birds Online, http://www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz, “Spur-winged plover”, accessed 24/2/2021
- Trainor CR, Bauer M, Schellekens M, Bos B, Marijnissen T. First Records of Masked Lapwing Vanellus miles for Timor and Flores, Lesser Sundas. KUKILA. 2011 Dec 4;14:70-2.