Posted by: Rob Viens | September 25, 2013

“Never-Ceasing Screams” of the Pied Lapwing

It has been a quiet week on the Pampas with one of Darwin’s only entries coming tomorrow when he wrote about the arrival (and quick dispatch) of Syms Covington:

“These few days of rest were very pleasant; I had plenty of business to transact; & was employed in obtaining letters of introduction, passport &c for St Fe. — My servant having arrived from M. Video, I despatched him to an English Estancia to shoot & skin birds.” (Sept 21-26)

Having not gotten enough of sleeping under the stars, Darwin was already planning his next adventure – this time up the Rio Parana to the town of St. Fe. He described the upcoming trip to his sister:

“The Beagle is now at Monte Video or Maldonado…— I shall soon be on horse back again; there is a river to the North (the Carcaraņa) the banks of which are so thickly strewed with great bones, that they build part of the Corrall with them.— Every person has observed them, so they must be very numerous.— I shall then return to M. Video & join the Beagle.— At the latter end of next month she sails for the Straits of Magellan & likewise pays the Falkland islands another visit.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, 20 September 1833)

While we wait for the next trip up the river, here are a couple of descriptions from the previous trip – birds that Darwin mentions seeing in the middle of September (in the same area as the black-necked swans). In Voyage of the Beagle he writes:

“The kind of plover, which appears as if mounted on stilts, (Himantopus nigricollis) is here common in flocks of considerable size. It has been wrongfully accused of inelegance; when wading about in shallow water, which is its favourite resort, its gait is far from awkward. These birds in a flock utter a noise, that singularly resembles the cry of a pack of small dogs in full chace: waking in the night, I have more than once been for a moment startled at the distant sound. The teru-tero (Vanellus cayanus) is another bird, which often disturbs the stillness of the night. In appearance and habits it resembles in many respects our peewits; its wings, however, are armed with sharp spurs, like those on the legs of the common cock. As our peewit takes its name from the sound of its voice, so does the teru-tero. While riding over the grassy plains, one is constantly pursued by these birds, which appear to hate mankind, and I am sure deserve to be hated for their never-ceasing, unvaried, harsh screams. To the sportsman they are most annoying, by telling every other bird and animal of his approach: to the traveller in the country, they may possibly, as Molina says, do good, by warning him of the midnight robber. During the breeding season, they attempt, like our peewits, by feigning to be wounded, to draw away from their nests dogs and other enemies. The eggs of this bird are esteemed a great delicacy.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

Hmm…but did you get to try one and test that last hypothesis?

The first bird Darwin mentions is one that he calls a black-necked stilt (Himantopus nigricollis) – but more likely, it is another member of the Himantopus genus. Based on range, I’d suggest it was the white-backed stilt (Himantopus melanuru). Stilts, as you might imagine, are long-legged wading birds that feed on aquatic insects.

Watch an excellent short film clip from the Cornell Ornithology lab of the black-necked stilt filmed in the southern US:

The second bird in Darwin’s description is a pied plover or pied lapwing (Vanellus cayanus).  (Technically they are not true plovers, so lapwing is actually more accurate.) There appears to be some confusion in the literature as I am also finding Hoploxypterus cayanus listed as the pied plover (and covering the same range).  The later name may hold sway (via naming convention) as it was applied to this bird at an earlier date then Vanellus.


Vanellus cayanus by John Gerrard Keulemans

pied lapwing

Like the stilt, the pied lapwing is also a wading bird that feeds on small invertebrates.  Modern descriptions back up Darwin’s observation, commenting on their “shrill, wailing cry”. To experience Darwin’s “madness”, you can listen to the sounds made by the pied lapwing by visiting this link on the Encyclopedia of Life. (RJV)

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