Lapwing. Now there is a rather strange word, but what does it mean? Well, don’t try researching this on the Internet unless you have quite a bit of time to spare, and are prepared to weave your way through a variety of explanations that are often at odds with one another, ranging from “refers to the birds’ slow wingbeat” to “from the Old English for leaper-winker”. A leaper-winker? Well, to make a long story short and skipping a few intermediate steps, the “leaper” was corrupted to “lap” and the “winker” to “wing”.
The Vanellus lapwings in southern Africa were previously called plovers, which presents less of an etymological dilemma. The meaning of the word “plover” appears to have been derived from the Latin word “pluvial” meaning rain or bringing rain. Many of the plovers are found close to water, so this makes a little sense, although exactly what the relationship is with bringing rain is a mystery.
All of which brings us to the Crowned lapwing, which is found rather widely throughout Africa south of the Sahara, and which we often see in the short grass along the roadside while driving through Namibia. Fairly large, with a length of about 30 cm, it is an unmistakable bird with its greyish-brown upperparts and chest, white belly separated from the greyish-brown chest by a black breast band, and with a black crown separated from the black band that covers the forehead, eyebrow and nape of the neck by a strip of white. The eyes are orange or light brown, the bill is red with a black tip and the legs and feet are orange to red. The sexes are alike in plumage, but the males are a little larger than the females. The colour of the legs and feet intensifies when the birds are ready to breed.
The Crowned lapwing favours the drier parts of the country (excluding the actual desert) , and particularly favours short grasslands, open savanna and man-made fields such as airfields, playing fields, parks and, as mentioned, the short grass verges along the road. They are gregarious birds, often found in quite big groups, as they hunt for insects, termites and other invertebrates that form their diet; running in short bursts before stopping to peck at a likely source of food.
They are very noisy birds, with a strident “kree-kree-kreep-kreip”, often uttered while in flight. They are very protective and defend their nests by diving at intruders while screaming noisily, an intimidating performance that will see off all but the most determined intruders. It is almost impossible not to duck down under these attacks, although the birds are not likely to actually make contact.
Crowned lapwings are monogamous and their nests are shallow scrapes on the ground, lined with small stones and bits of plant material. The female lays a clutch of two or three yellowish or brown eggs that hatch after an incubation period of about 30 days.
The scientific name for the Crowned lapwing is Vanellus coronatus, Vanellus from the Latin for a winnowing fan, perhaps referring to the action of the birds wings, and coronatus from the Latin for crowned. Thus a crowned bird with wings that move like a winnowing fan. I have no experience of a winnowing fan, but at least I can vouch for the crown.