Australia is famous for its diverse wildlife wanting to kill you. Even the birds get in on the action. In certain regions the Australian magpie (no relation to the Canadian bird) will swoop at humans, at times with deadly consequences. A five-month old baby recently died when her mother stumbled while trying to avoid a swooping magpie in Brisbane. Thankfully, the magpies here in Tasmania are much milder mannered – they don’t swoop. However, things are quite different when it comes to our plovers.
Ornithologists call them masked lapwings, but most Aussies just call them plovers. For North American readers, just imagine a large killdeer with a bad temper at certain times of the year. In our Launceston neighbourhood they’re prolific. You can’t avoid them, even though at times you desperately want to.
I’d nominate them as Tasmania’s most dangerous bird. Though they’re sometimes hard to see from a distance, plovers have a black-tipped yellow spur on the carpal joint of their wings. And they’re not afraid to use these spiky little weapons. Swooping magpies just have their beaks; plovers intimidate with beaks and spurs – doubly dangerous.
Most of the year plovers are harmless. They just go about their business feasting on worms and insects. At such times their only fault is their awful sound. Australian magpies have a beautiful throaty call, but plovers sound like a malfunctioning home alarm.
However, when the winter solstice rolls around in the antipodes (June 21), plovers become unhinged. The solstice usually marks the beginning of their breeding season. The problems begin with where the females choose to lay their eggs, which is just about anywhere. A few weeks ago I was on my normal daily walk route. I rounded a corner on a sidewalk and there, right next to the sidewalk on the grass, was a female plover sitting on her eggs. She started squawking at me, the male started squawking at me, and I made a hasty retreat to the other side of the street. I don’t mess with plovers.
In the weeks following, I knew to avoid that spot. In that instance, a predator appears to have eventually raided the nest – I never saw any chicks. But it’s when the chicks hatch that things really start to get out of control. In another spot on my daily walk route, plovers have been nesting regularly each year. This year they initially had four chicks hatch. At the moment, they’re down to one. The other three haven’t survived – probably due to cats, but we also have a goshawk in the vicinity, as well as some falcons. But with that one chick, that pair of plovers will protect it with their lives. A nest is static – it stays in one spot; but chicks are mobile and you never know where they’re going to be from day to day. If you come anywhere near a plover chick, the parents only give you a couple of warning squawks before the aggressive aerial attack begins. I’ve been attacked several times, always by accidentally coming across chicks and their parents, and I can tell you it’s the kind of experience which requires a change of undergarments afterwards. They’ve never made contact, but it’s still a terrifying ordeal.
Plovers seem insane about protecting their young, their most vulnerable. I often think about their instinct to do whatever it takes to make sure their chicks survive, even before they hatch. They’ll even resort to violence to protect the next generation. But then are others of God’s creatures which resort to violence to destroy the next generation. So many tiny helpless human beings are being brutally destroyed in the womb each day. The human parents who are supposed to protect them fail. Plovers may appear insane with their protective instincts, but I’d propose that it’s actually humans who are insane with their failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our species. And unlike plovers who have no moral responsibility for their violent instincts, we humans are culpable for our insanity. Even in creation, God has not left us without a witness to this fact. It’s neither natural or moral to fail to protect.