In November we first saw her with three tiny, fluffy brown chicks. The Plovers, or masked lapwings, live on the grassy verge in our street. You can often hear their piercing cry, kekekekekekeee, especially at night or in the springtime when they’re most zesty. Their speckly eggs are laid in any old depression but these parents are anything but casual. They draw humans away from their nest with a number of tricks, which include feigning a broken leg or wing. Should the intruder persist, he will be dive-bombed by a yellow-faced spur-winged terror.
Chicks the size of ping-pong balls on legs must outwit, outlast and outplay dogs, cats, snakes, foxes and cars. It’s a precarious existence on the fringes of suburbia.
Every minute of every day Dad Plover stationed himself near his family and marched, straight-backed, up and down, up and down; always alert, always alarmed. If you came too close, the chicks would freeze and fall to the ground, dead still, exactly like the 1950s Cold War drill for schoolchildren: “stop, drop and roll”. They would become invisible behind the flimsiest excuse for a clump of grass—till danger passed.
They knew us locals well enough to let us come quite close and the Thornton kids would check out the chicks on their way to scoop up some tadpoles in one of the sadly diminishing rites of an Aussie childhood.
When we took our daily walks out to the sheer sandstone cliffs that characterize this part of the south coast, we would loop back along the road and marvel at their rate of growth. One day there were just two chicks and, sadly, we knew that nature, red of tooth and claw, often provided a pair and a spare.
The parents seemed more vigilant, if that was possible.
Dad Plover saw off a couple of dogs, one of them a mean piece of work with eyes the colour of broken beer bottle glass. With his stiff-legged gait the Little Plover Dad embodied that old saying that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.
End of November and said to be able to predict rain, Mum Plover puffed out her body and embraced her chicks under her wing, all three moving as one. She hugged their tiny brown bodies close through the thunderstorms and fierce cold winds and I marveled at the magic of mothering. The mottled down that covered the chicks was damp but not wet despite storms that dumped as much as 100 millimeters down in a single flooding night.
The parents had long red legs and their babies had a cream stripe around their necks. They grew quickly feasting on insects and worms and by mid December seemed less vulnerable.
For some days we mourned the loss of the second chick and my suspicion fell on a visiting dog.
The tourists were coming.
Then there were none. Just saw the parents in their usual spots, but no chicks. Life was a little duller, the street felt emptier.
It was a hot day, a week out from Christmas when I returned from shopping and to my sheer delight I saw it—the last chick was alive and well and more leggy than Elle. She still had a little of her juvenile softness but was more like a gawky version of her parents.
They come in four-wheel drives, the tourists.
New Year came and went.
I went for milk and saw a white smear on the road. They had to have been speeding to hit the young Plover and what on earth made them run over it again and again until it was as flat as a piece of paper. Mum and Dad just stood off to the side, listlessly pecking at the grass, looking at the body, maggoty in the sunshine. It seemed needlessly cruel.
We took a shovel and scraped the little fellow off the road.