Shorter days trigger a northbound wanderlust in migratory birds. Back in January, the first hints of migration appeared when a few turkey vultures sailed over the house. Ruby-throated hummingbirds have already reached the Gulf Coast. Follow their return at www.hummingbirds.net.
On Feb. 28, an eastern towhee announced its return – “Drink your tea!” And on March 6, woodcock danced in the sky behind my house. It was dark, so I couldn’t see a thing, but I listened for 20 minutes to a symphony of peents and twitters. The sounds of the woodcock’s “sky dance,” as Aldo Leopold called it, are truly music to my ears.
And on March 7, I saw and heard two killdeer on a neighbor’s hayfield. Early migrants must be hardy, and killdeer are among the toughest.
Larger than a robin and a member of the plover family, this shorebird is 10 to 11 inches long. Two black horizontal bands cross a white chest, and up close the adult’s bright red eye is obvious.
The best way to learn about killdeer is to watch them, and the best time to watch them is when they nest. Unlike most birds, killdeer nest on the ground in open areas such as pastures, cemeteries, lakeshores, airports and gravel driveways.
I’ve found many killdeer nests in the past, but none was easy to spot. Even on a freshly mowed lawn, the incubating parent sits low and tight and is difficult to see.
The best way to find a nest is to observe the adults’ behavior beginning in early April. When I suspect a killdeer nest is nearby, I walk back and forth across the area, hoping to attract the pair’s attention.
When an alarm call sounds. I look to see a killdeer flopping on the ground, sometimes as close as 20 feet away, acting as if a wing is broken. Its alarm call – a high, rapid trill – is loud and piercing. The bird is screaming for attention. The “broken wing act” draws my eyes, just as it would a predator’s, and I follow the “injured” adult.
An adult does not begin its act right at the nest. When alarmed, a killdeer slips away and begins performing only when it judges itself to be a safe distance from the nest.
I slowly approach the bird and note the spot where I first saw it. As I get closer, the killdeer moves farther away from the nest, still dragging its wing. With each step I take, the bird lures me farther from the original spot. After it moves about 20 yards from where I first saw it, it flies off and circles overhead. Its “kill-dee” calls almost sounds like laughter, as if the bird is mocking me.
An ordinary predator would now be far enough away from the nest that it would either lose interest or simply not be able to relocate the nest. But being no ordinary predator, I return to the spot I had first seen the bird and slowly begin searching in an ever-widening spiral path. I walk carefully because I know the scrape of a nest and its cryptically mottled eggs are difficult to spot. And nothing would be more reckless than to step on the nest.
Eventually, I find the scrape lined with small pebbles; it usually takes fewer than five minutes. The four large eggs, pointed end facing to the middle of the scrape, resemble four equal-size pieces of pie.
When I monitor nesting killdeer, I watch from a distance with binoculars so I don’t disturb the nest.
The parents take turns incubating the eggs for about 26 days. The lengthy incubation period enables the precocial young to hatch ready to hit the ground running – just like chickens. On very hot days, adults may shade the nest or even cool the eggs by soaking their belly feathers.
Within an hour after hatching, four alert, downy chicks scamper off with mom and dad. The chicks feed themselves but stay with their parents for about five weeks until the young can fly. Then they join a flock of other killdeer at the edge of a nearby wetland.
Dr. Shalaway can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3 to 4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, live online at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit Scott’s website, www.drshalaway.com, or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.