Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 26, 2007

Go Out There and Break a Wing

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:06 pm

  Everybody knows the Killdeer.  This bird “…is too well known to merit any extended notice,” according to Michigan Bird Life (1912) author William Barrows.  “It has the exasperating habit of signaling the approach of a stranger,” he goes on to say, “…and is more likely to rush into danger than to avoid it.”  Barrows observes that the Killdeer is “not a good table bird, and the few that are killed by gunners are shot commonly in anger…”

  So, what is it about this bird that elicited such a colorful response from an otherwise staid and professional observer of bird life? Killdeers are a loud in-your-face kind of bird that defy the basic laws of natural behavior and share our love of open ground. They follow us into our plowed fields, gravel parking lots, and barren sand pits and show no timidity when it comes to balling us out. Their incessant calling can be irritating and they do tend to take us on, rather than flee our presence. My encounter with one yesterday brought all these bold traits to mind (although I wasn’t tempted into killdeercide).

  I nearly ran over a nesting female who was sheltering her clutch just inches from the edge of a dirt service road. The location was a quintessential Killdeer spot – being out in the middle of a searing hot short grass field. Her clutch of four speckled eggs were neatly arranged within a shallow bowl of scooped out gravel which served as a nest. There was absolutely no cover at the location and the mid-afternoon ground temperature was well over 100 degrees.

  As I approached the nest, this bird let out a staccato trill and began to display her oscar winning talents. (Take a look here and here to see her performance). She stepped away from her clutch, but immediately turned toward me to display her apparently broken right wing. She dragged the appendage on the ground and flared her chestnut brown tail as if favoring her left leg.  I ignored her and bent down to observe the beautiful eggs.  This prompted her to begin anew with a dramatic reenactment. This time she threw in a freshly broken left wing and increased the intensity of the trill.  To a potential nest predator, this would have been an offer too good to resist – why eat a few eggs when you can feast on a wounded parent bird instead?  Not being a nest predator, I indulged her anyway and took a few steps in her direction. As expected, she mustered her strength and was able to keep just out of my reach.  She would have kept this up until I was lured far away from the nest – at which point she’d take to the air and return to the nest.

  There is something admirable about a bird that would throw down its own life to protect her precious brood. I might suggest, however, that all this drama would be unnecessary if only a proper nest location had been chosen in the first place.  This is not the Killdeer way, however, and I was not around when the scripts were being passed out.

 Because many of you have probably witnessed this display before and are very familiar with the Killdeer, I guess it is my job to point out a few new observations.

  Of course, the common name comes from the common call of this bird: “Kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee,” but listen here and you’ll see that this animal exhibits a wide variety of noise making abilities that earned it the scientific name of Charadrius vociferous – the Noisy Plover.  While the bold black neck rings are a distinctive visual trait, it is also worth your time to take a close look at the startlingly bright scarlet eye ring surrounding the huge eyes (look here). The phrase “jeepers creepers where’d you get those peepers” will come to mind if you chance to view one of these birds through a pair of binoculars.

  While in the process of eyeballing one of these loquacious plovers, take a look at their feet. Unlike most birds, Killdeers have only three toes per foot (lacking the backward pointing fourth toe).  The triad of toes originates from a thickly padded heel. This arrangement represents an adaptation to a running lifestyle. It is a general trend of functionality that running animals tend to reduce their number of toes over time. The Killdeer has taken the first step on this evolutionary racetrack and the horse has taken this trend to its fullest extent with only one toe per foot.

  I eventually returned to my car and waited around for the anxious female Killdeer to return to her eggs. Mr. Barrows states it well when he writes that the eggs are “surprisingly large” for a robin-sized bird.  At about 1 ½ inches by 1 inch, the speckled marvels beg the question as to how such a small bird can manage such a packet and live to tell about it. The eggs (see here) blend in well against their barren background.

  The female arrived over the eggs in a very short time and resumed her calm motherhood role. Her primary goal today was to shade the eggs from the intense heat of the sun. To achieve this, she squatted over them like a parasol – allowing the slight breeze to circulate beneath her. As she patiently stood, she opened her mouth and panted.

  Both parents maintain this routine for 24-28 days until the little ones hatch out.  Through selected employment of their acting and parenting skills, they will insure that another generation of thespians will carry on the odd Killdeer way.

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