I am not a deer hunter, but when I went out to prune our little honeycrisp apple tree, I discovered that the deer had already done it for me. At that moment, I have to admit I wished all the deer hunters a very good season next year. And what does that have to do with birds? Well, there is a bird that has just returned to our part of the state that expresses my momentary thoughts in its call and the name we have given it. Do you know which bird I mean? Yes, it’s the killdeer.
The birds make this call (described as killdee or killdeah) during territorial disputes, when a male is courting a female, and when they are alarmed by an intruder. Killdeer belong to the family of shorebirds; plovers in particular. But unlike all the other plovers these birds prefer to live inland in fields and on farmlands often miles from the nearest water.
They are similar in appearance to other plovers, with a brown back, and white breast with double black bands across the chest, and one black band across its white forehead. One unique feature is the striking orange feathers on the upper part of the rump and tail that are only seen when the bird spreads its tail in a display. The legs are pale and its slim black bill is used to collect a wide variety of insect prey, including beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, spiders, earthworms, snails and more. These are helpful birds to have around. They are often seen flying behind tractors as they plow fields and expose the grubs of June beetles which they quickly devour; 98% of their diet is made up of these invertebrates, the other 2 % is weed seeds.
Killdeer, like all the other plovers builds it nest on the ground, although build may be too generous a word, since it generally consists of a shallow depression that might be lined with pebbles, grasses or weed stalks. Where ever it is built it is very well camouflaged. The eggs too are superbly adapted to blend in with their nests; usually grey to buff in color, with brown or black splotches or scrawl marks. You’ll know you’re close to the nest if an adult killdeer suddenly appears and cries piteously as it runs away dragging one wing on the ground. This is a classic diversionary tactic. The adult considers all of us to be predators, so this display is designed to coax us way from the nest and after the adult, who will suddenly recover and fly away. If you move away and just sit and wait patiently, the bird will return to the nest so that you can see its location.
Once the eggs hatch (around 24 days), the chicks are up and running as soon as their feathers dry. They’re about as cute as any baby bird could be, looking like brown fluff balls running on toothpicks. The parents lead them away from the nest site to feed as a family.
I discovered a few killdeer nests over the years, but it takes patience and luck. The most unusual one was built on top of a Dairy Queen at the Minnesota Zoo. I was working as a Monorail Tour guide at the time and on each of our trips we would slow down as we passed over the roof and look down to see the adult birds taking turns on the nest, sometimes standing directly over it on hot days. The roof was covered with gravel, which was a perfect medium for them and it was well protected from predators, but we wondered how those babies were going to leave the premises when their parent said it was time to go. Nesting on roof tops is not unusual for these birds, although they have lost many of those options as people have moved away from gravel and gone to a solid surface roofing material.
In the next few weeks, as the spring chorus grows in volume keep your ears tuned for Charadrius vociferous, a bird well named in either Greek or English.
By Kate Crowley
Photos by Mike Link