Which British bird Required a UK Law to Stop it Being Eaten as a Countryside Delicacy and its Eggs taken for Cooking?
It was 1958, I was 14, and had recently joined the York Bootham School Natural History Club to broaden my knowledge of birds around my home and to learn of the best birding spots near York. 138 species were listed and I had probably seen over half of them. A bird description that caught my eye was that of the lapwing (also called peewit or green plover), since several pairs nested on the wet meadows behind my home. Because I continued to collect their eggs to eat, the Clubs report alarmed me. It stated:
“Old Bootham records (beginning March 1851) indicate that this species has always been a common bird in the York area, but it is certainly less common than it used to be. Many diaries at the turn of the century report the presence of many nests in fields very near York, while today it is increasingly easy to find fields having no resident pair of breeding lapwing.”
Immediately I ceased collecting their eggs and was more respectful of their breeding grounds. This pigeon-sized bird lays its eggs – usually 3 or 4 – in an open field , using a scrape in the ground. If its nest is threatened, it will approach you and pretend its wing is damaged by dragging it along the ground. If that does not work, it may dive-bomb you and screech its peewit call. Its name lapwing probably originates from the English words that meant “to leap” and “to totter”, and describe both its aerial tumbling courtship and its “damaged wing” procedure for protecting its nest.
The lapwing can be identified by its size (about 30cm/12 inches in length), the black and white plumage, a glossy green back, a wispy crest on its head, its pee-wit call and the rounded paddle-shaped wings it uses for flight.
It was clear why the numbers were in decline. In earlier times, not only were lapwing eggs taken for food but the bird itself was killed and eaten as a countryside delicacy. The consequences on the population was so severe that the British government passed the 1926 Protection of Lapwings Act that made it illegal to offer the bird for human consumption or willfully disturb its nest. Even so, during World War 11, its eggs were taken and turned into powder so that they could be consumed by soldiers on the front line.
Their decline has continued to the present day as a result of the use of pesticides, loss of habitat and reduced food supplies. The lapwing population is now approximately 80 percent lower than it was back at the end of the 1950s. Today there are an estimated 200,000 birds breeding in Britain, with their numbers increasing to around 600,000 when lapwings from northern Europe arrive for winter. As a result, the species is on the “red list” of British endangered species.
Arriving in California, I no longer had access to this dainty, beautifully plumaged bird. They are rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic except maybe as the occasional vagrant in New England and north-east Canada, blown there by bad weather. Its closest relative in North America is the widespread and common killdeer, which is also a member of the plover family, has similar feeding habits and also feigns injury to protect its nest.
Fortunately, both the UK and United States now have mechanisms to identify endangered bird species that are at risk if extinction. The UK maintains categories of conservation (red, amber and green) with “red” species requiring urgent attention. Currently there are approximately 160 species on this list although groups like the bittern and nightjar have been transferred to amber. The US Endangered Species Act, 1973 presently identifies about 90 threatened species, including the California condor (reintroduced into the wild), the clapper rail, whooping crane and ivory-billed woodpecker. The International Union for Conservation of Nature provides global oversight.