Grade school encounter with killdeer provides memorable teaching moment

With the arrival of April, the pace of migration will quicken. Throughout the month of March, the “early birds” made their return to my yard, including species like tree swallow, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Birders know they have a narrow window of opportunity to enjoy the arriving birds in the spring. Some will linger briefly and continue to points farther north, while others will take up residence but turn secretive quickly as they get down to the important business of building nests, incubating eggs and raising young.

Killdeer-CHICK

A young killdeer — looking like a fuzzy golfball on toothpics, is born precocial. They can leave the nest and feed themselves, all while wearing a coat of downy feathers. Photo by Krista Lundgren/U.S. Fish & Wildlife

 

The task of producing young is the most important one that birds undertake. Even with the most dedicated parents, many birds born this spring will never reach the age of one. Eggs in the nest are vulnerable to opportunist predators, including snakes, mice, squirrels, raccoons and even other birds. Many of the birds that nest in our yards, gardens and woodlands produce altricial young. The term “altricial” is a scientific one meaning the young birds are born helpless and blind, without feathers, with almost non-existent mobility. However, they grow quickly. Since just as many creatures would like to gobble up hatchling birds as like to consume eggs, it doesn’t pay to remain in a nest for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Birds hatched in cup-shaped nests placed in trees, shrubs or even on the ground usually leave their nests within a couple of weeks. On the other hand, cavity-nesting birds produce young that can afford to linger a little longer. Some of their hatchlings may remain inside a nesting cavity for as long as a month. Even after altricial young leave their nests, they will remain dependent on their parents for some time.

kildeer_plover

Painting by John James Audubon of what he called the “Killdeer Plover.”

On the opposite side of the equation, many birds produce precocial young, which are born with their eyes open, bodies with feathers or down, and the mobility to follow their parents almost from the time they leave the egg. Precocial young can also find their own food, although parents may escort them to good foraging areas. Well-known precocial birds include ducks and chickens. Anyone who has ever observed ducklings or chicks following a mother hen is familiar with the attributes of precocial young.

Many wild birds produce precocial young, including shorebirds, grouse and quail, wild turkeys, loons and grebes. The ostrich, the world’s largest bird, also produces precocial young. Closer to home, one of my earliest bird memories involves a bird quite famous for the care and keeping of its precocial young. The killdeer is a North American shorebird that is at home in a variety of habitats, including rooftops, parking lots, golf courses, pastures and, in the case of my remembrance, an elementary school playground.

I don’t remember who discovered the nest, but I know that my teacher at Hampton Elementary School and her fellow faculty members protected the nest once they became aware of it. My teacher also had the wisdom to incorporate the nesting killdeer into her lessons. In other words, she made the discovery of these nesting birds a “teachable moment” for her young students.

Killdeer-Eggs

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Four eggs in a killdeer nest, which is assembled right on the ground.

I can’t think of a better bird for teaching some lessons about the strategies birds use to raise young. The killdeer doesn’t make much of a nest. The female often lays her amazingly well-camouflaged eggs — usually four, but occasionally three or five — in a shallow depression in dirt or gravel. On occasion, they may line the nest with plant materials or other items. I once observed a killdeer nest in a gravel parking lot of a mobile home dealership. The ingenious female killdeer, using an abundant material, had lined her nest with discarded cigarette butts — dozens of them. I’ve always joked that I hoped the young weren’t born with a nicotine addiction.

Killdeer parents are zealous parents in safeguarding their young. Adults are famous for feigning a “broken wing” to distract potential predators away from nests and offspring. They will also call loudly while faking their injury to keep the predator’s attention diverted. It’s the loud call — an exuberant “kill-deer” — that has given this member of the plover family its common name.

Like many memories from childhood, some details of that killdeer family’s fate are a little hazy. As far as I know, the parent killdeers succeeded at raising their young family. Perhaps that moment of learning, which let me glimpse into the private life of a fascinating family of birds, pointed me toward my eventual interest in birds.

Killdeer_AgainstLog

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An adult killdeer is usually a conspicuous, loud bird. 

Later, as an adult and during my early years as a birder, I had an encounter with a baby killdeer. I found the tiny bird limp and lifeless on the ground. Saddened, I reached down to pick up the young bird — it looked like a fuzzy golf ball on matchstick legs — for a closer look. As my fingers started to close around the bird, the baby revived and sprinted off with an impressive display of speed. That’s when I learned that killdeer young have one last defense against would-be predators; they can play possum!

While shorebirds, killdeers are not tied to the shoreline. Although I have observed them along beaches in South Carolina, these birds are just as much at home in cattle pastures, muddy edges of rivers and lakes or even baseball fields. Such terrestrial habitats provide these birds with plenty of food, which includes insects, spiders, centipedes, earthworms and the occasional seed. While many people remain unaware of the world’s shorebirds, the killdeer is the one member of the family that is probably frequently encountered by many Americans. Their fondness for habitats created by humans, from parking lots to gravel-covered rooftops, bring these birds close to us.

••••••

Remember to share your first hummingbird sightings with me. Simply jot down the time and date that you first notice these tiny birds have returned. You can email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or though Facebook. I am increasingly impatient to see my first hummingbirds of the season.

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