What is the connection between the Easter bunny and eggs? And what do the lapwings have to do with all this?

This is an Easter wildlife story that brings together two mammals, a bird and eggs.

At the heart of Easter tradition, at least in Europe and North America, are the Easter bunny and Easter eggs, but why have they come to be associated with the main holiday in the Christian calendar?

Easter egg containers. Photo: Martin Walters (56090077)

At the origin of the story, the Easter bunny (rabbit) was a hare, the Osterhase of German legend. The Easter Hare acted as a kind of judge, deliberating on whether the children were deemed to have behaved well or to have been naughty during the Easter tide.

The hare arrived with a basket of colored eggs, sweets and toys to reward the children who had been good. In medieval times, the hare was often associated with the Virgin Mary, as it was considered a hermaphrodite and therefore capable of a kind of virgin birth, and hares feature in some examples of religious art.

But why the link between hares (or rabbits) and eggs? Well, the story gets complicated. The tradition of giving eggs at Easter is well established.

Brown hare (Lepus europaeus) boxing in Norfolk.  Photo: Simon Stirrup
Brown hare (Lepus europaeus) boxing in Norfolk. Photo: Simon Stirrup

Spring is when most wild birds lay their broods, and eggs are a powerful symbol of rebirth and therefore resurrection, and are therefore perfect for Easter.

We are thinking a lot about Ukraine at the moment, and in this country there is a strong tradition of decorating eggs (pysanki) during Easter celebrations; indeed, colored eggs are present at Easter in many countries today.

One bird that could be implicated in this story is the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), a large plover found across much of Europe.

Lapwings.  Photo: Jonathan Heath
Lapwings. Photo: Jonathan Heath

In winter, these beautiful birds can often be seen flocking to feed on arable land or in wetlands. They mainly breed in open fields and build only a minimal nest, a simple scrape thinly lined with plant matter.

Hares also breed in the open, creating a flattened area of ​​grass known as the form, and lapwings and hares are sometimes found in the same grassy habitats. Hares often crouch flat to hide from predators, then suddenly swoop down if disturbed. The sight of a hare fleeing into an area where lapwings are nesting might well have led people to think that the hares had laid the eggs.

Lapwings.  Photo: Jonathan Heath
Lapwings. Photo: Jonathan Heath

Lapwings are even sometimes said to take the form of a hare for their nest, and the returning hare may then find themselves huddled next to a clutch of eggs, thus adding “evidence” to reinforce this error.

In the spring, hares sometimes rush, rear up and sometimes box. This behavior usually involves a female hare fending off unwanted attention from males, rather than rival male hares competing for access to the female.

Moving from animals to plants, I made an Easter pilgrimage to worship a botanical specialty not far from Cambridge, on Therfield Heath near Royston.

Pasquefleur.  Photo: Martin Walters
Pasquefleur. Photo: Martin Walters

A dry, south-facing slope of ‘unimproved’ chalk grassland is home to a thriving population of one of Britain’s rarest and most beautiful wildflowers, the pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris).

As its name suggests, the pasqueflower blooms around Easter and this year the show is particularly impressive, with thousands of plants scattered across the short lawn, creating a magical, almost fairytale spectacle.

Although the air that day was still chilly when we visited, the sun brought out peacocks and small tortoiseshell butterflies and a few bees were feeding on some of the six-petalled purple flowers with yellow centers.

Learn more about Martin Walters each month in the Cambridge Independent and visit his author page

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Alicia R. Rucker