Beautiful Ground Birds
Have a large outside aviary, no close neighbors, and want something easy to care for and different in appearance? Want a boldly patterned ground bird that is not a hider? Plovers are an excellent choice for zoos and private aviculturists!
Plovers are found throughout the world, except for Antarctica, and comprise a large family, Charadriidae, of which there are about 63 species. They are typically found around water. Different species can be found on ocean beaches, around lakes and rivers, and some live in grassland environments. They are strictly ground birds; never perching. All plovers have similar body shapes and behaviors, and are monomorphic so sexing is required to ensure a true pair. In the wild, plovers eat a variety of animal food, mainly insects, small fish, crustaceans, and other small invertebrates.
The larger plovers are also known as lapwings and are in the Vanellus genus. They have long legs and large spurs or sharp, bony projections on the wrists of their wings.
Stunning and beautiful shorebirds, unfortunately plovers are not often found in private aviculture and are more commonly found in zoos where they can provide them with the large enclosures they require.. They make perfect display birds as they prefer to be in the open so are easily seen by all. Lapwings are alert and active, constantly wary, even at night. They seem to never sleep.
Two of the most attractive lapwings are the Blacksmith (Vanellus armatus) and Spurwing (V. spinosus) species. The Vanellus lapwing species native to Africa are among the most popularly kept plovers, but there are other species native to Australia, such as the Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles) that are also occasionally seen in USA aviculture. A few individuals of different species have been imported here and there throughout the years, and some are being domestically bred by private individuals as well as by zoos in the USA.
Adult lapwings are hardy, long-lived, and adaptable. Individuals living over fifteen years old is not unusual. One of our Spurwings is over 35 years old and still laying eggs.
We have been working with and raising plovers since the late 1990’s. This webpage will address the husbandry and care of the lapwing species, as care for the smaller plovers varies somewhat.
Housing Lapwing Plovers
Large and open is the key to housing plovers as it makes the birds very nervous to be in a confined space. Aviaries need to be comparable to 10 foot x 10 foot in size. They like to stay in the open areas, avoiding tall plants and other barriers to their vision. Plovers stay on the ground continuously unless scared into flight and never perch. They will use low mounds or rocks to stand on to better watch over the area. Dirt, decomposed granite, or similar substrates can be used as flooring with short plants for ground cover.
Mature, healthy lapwings are tolerant of cold weather down to mid-30’s Fah. with no supplemental heat if protected from the elements such as snow. Short periods of low 30’s can be tolerated if the weather is dry. Supplemental heat helps avoid problems with frostbite. In areas with harsher weather, plovers need to be housed inside. Younger birds are not as cold hardy.
Plovers tend to jam their beaks through the wire of an enclosure when nervous, such as when being caught, harassed by other birds, or introduced to a new enclosure. This behavior can cause injury to the bird’s beak so wiring is best if the openings are large (1″) or run vertically. Plovers can also be injured when scared by hitting the enclosure roof or other items when they fling themselves into flight without aiming, much like quail launching into air.
Ponds and waterfalls are enjoyed by plovers for bathing and foraging, but they do not swim. No worries if a large water feature is not available because a kitty litter pan does just fine for these waders.
Although they enjoy bathing in the shallow parts of ponds or their water dishes, they do not like to be misted or sprayed with water. They will walk in very shallow water and wiggle their feet in the mud, one foot at a time, in front of them to grab any yummy tidbits they find. They do not have extra long bills to probe through mud or deep water.
Mixing plovers with other avian species can be done. They can be housed easily with many aerial bird species (finch, softbill, parrot, etc.) as they do not compete with perch space. Other ground birds or other plover species should only be housed with them if there is adequate space for all.
Being territorial, plovers will often kill fledging chicks of other species on the ground and small ground birds, such as button quail, on the ground, if given the chance. They get especially aggressive during breeding but otherwise do not bother smaller birds that come to water or food dishes on the ground as long as the birds keep some distance between themselves and the plovers. Raised or multiple feeding stations are recommended.
Two plovers of the same gender or a pair of different Vanellus species can be housed together.
We have raised plovers in aviaries with finches, tanagers, starlings, parakeets, and even breeding turacos and mousebirds. With some planning and foresight, plovers make great additions to mixed species aviaries.
Plovers are one of the easiest and cheapest birds to feed. The staple diet for plovers and lapwings in captivity is a dry pelleted diet and some livefood. We feed a mixture of Mazuri Softbill and medium-sized Purina Trout Chow. Livefood is given occasionally when non-breeding. Plovers will eat mealworms, waxworms, small goldfish or guppies, and crickets.
During breeding and raising chicks, we feed livefood daily and Paradise Earth Insectivore mix. Water-soaked pellets and hard-boiled egg are also offered.
While they spend most of the day quietly, lapwings make a clicking call that can carry. Pairs and multiple plovers are noisier than a single individual. Breeding pairs are very vocal. Blacksmiths are actually named for their alarm call that sounds like the clinking of a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil.
Day and night, they are “watchdog” birds at aviaries as no strange person or animal can approach the aviaries without warning them away with their cries. Not birds for those people with complaining neighbors, these birds can keep up the alarm call for long periods of time if nervous. Some nights, especially when nervous or during a full moon, plovers may call for fifteen minutes or so at a time.
Although not the easiest birds to breed, success can be accomplished. Lapwings usually live in pairs or small groups in the wild, but single birds are quite happy in captivity. Pairs seem very aloof with one another, never allopreening or even touching each other, but they actually form tight bonds with each other. One breeding pair per aviary works best unless the aviary is really large. New lapwings need to be introduced to each other carefully with Howdy cage techniques, otherwise the weaker bird may be killed.
Breeding season starts in early spring with lots of calling and displaying to one another. Frequent mating with a characteristic call can be observed. Interestingly, mating often occurs right after mild disturbances in the flight.
Nests are simple scrapes on the ground when eggs are laid. Pebbles and twigs are usually added to the scrape as the weeks of incubation go by. Clutches are between 3-5 eggs. Incubation is 28-32 days. Both sexes incubate.
Plover chicks are the cutest! Being that they are born precocial, they spend the first few hours in or about the nest scrape with the adult, but then start exploring the flight. Parents vigorously chase away any birds that come near the chicks.
Parents squat and brood chicks frequently as the chicks are easily chilled. Brooding continues for a few weeks, less and less as chicks grow. In cold weather, brooding of chicks can continue for three months, at which time the chick is as big as the adult.
Chicks must be strong enough to feed themselves but do follow parents to the dishes. We serve shallow bowls of Paradise Earth Insectivore Mix, small mealworms, hard-boiled egg, and water for the chicks.
Chicks start getting more adult plumage at about 3 weeks. By the 4th or 5th week, the parents start a new clutch. The older chicks may be kept with the next clutch if the parents tolerate it. The older chicks just ignore the younger siblings. When the parents start chasing the young birds, they need to be removed from the flight otherwise they will be killed. Chicks are temperature delicate for up to one year old so care in housing needs to be given through the first winter. Pairs can lay up to four clutches in a season.
To learn more about plovers and lapwings, the following are recommended:
- Schroeder, Dick & Holland, Glen. PLOVERS Husbandry
- Vince, Martin. Softbills – Care, Breeding and Conservation. Hancock House, Publishers, Blaine, WA, USA. 1996.
- Johnson, Ron. “Artifical Incubation and Hand-rearing of Red-Wattled Lapwings”. A.F.A. Watchbird. Volume XVI, Number 6. Dec/Jan 1990, Page 4.