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Northern Lapwings - Peewits

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A northern lapwing

The Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) is a distinctive bird, with iridescent black plumage on its back, white feathers on its breast and a plume of black feathers on its head. Its 'peewit' call is also distinctive, and gives rise to its nickname. It has also been known as a green plover, as its iridescent plumage often glints green in the sunlight and it nests on the ground like plovers do.

These birds can be found across Europe, North Africa and Asia. The global population is estimated to be in excess of 5.6 million birds. However, the number of adult birds has decreased in recent decades, so since 2012 they have been classed as Near Threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. They are hunted for sport in some countries. Adults, chicks and eggs are vulnerable to predation by animals such as foxes, gulls and hedgehogs, plus their wet meadow habitat is at risk, eg from marsh drainage programmes or pollution.

Northern Lapwings mainly eat mud-dwelling creatures including snails, worms, spiders and insect larvae, plus small fish and frogs. They will also eat seeds. Some members of the species stay close to where they hatched, such as in the UK, while others migrate, eg from Norway to France or Spain. They are usually seen in flocks, especially in winter when many birds gather together.

Male and female Northern Lapwings are similar in appearance, although females tend to have orange on their necks and males have more black plumage on their fronts. In the breeding season (around March) the males make nests on the ground by scraping away the soil and lining the depressions with leaves and grass, and the females choose their favourites. The female lays up to four eggs and spends the most time incubating them - the male occasionally takes a turn. The eggs hatch after about four weeks, and the chicks have brown and white fluffy feathers. They can feed themselves soon after hatching, but are looked after by both parents until shortly after they learn to fly. They can fly when they are about six weeks old. The oldest Northern Lapwing known to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was 24 years old.

In the UK, Northern Lapwings can be found around lowland areas with wet meadows. They are also frequent visitors to nature reserves, including Titchfield Haven on the south coast and Burton Mere in the north west.

The Lapwing Family

There are 23 other members of the Vanellus genus, all with 'lapwing' in their common names. 'Vanellus' means 'little fan', and 'lapwing' is thought to refer to the birds' fluttering flight.

Several birds in the genus are classed as Least Concern and their population has increased in recent years. These include the Southern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis) of South America, the Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus) of central Africa, and the Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles) of Australia. Some are Least Concern with stable populations, such as the White-headed Lapwing (Vanellus albiceps) of central Africa, or the Andean Lapwing (Vanellus resplendens) that is found in the Andes mountains of South America, as its name suggests. Some lapwing species have unknown population trends, but are also of Least Concern, including the Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) that is found around India in South Asia.

However, other members of the genus are not so fortunate. Like the Northern Lapwing, the River Lapwing (Vanellus duvaucelii) of South-East Asia is Near Threatened and its population is decreasing. The Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius), that breeds in Kazakhstan, is Critically Endangered as its population is decreasing. The Javan Lapwing (Vanellus macropterus) is classed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) - there are estimated to be up to 50 adult birds left in the wild, but the last official sighting was in 1939.

Conservation efforts to protect habitats for lapwings around the world are ongoing.

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