Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 21, 2009

An Eight Legged Deer

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:47 pm

It was a rainy gray morning when I encountered “my” Killdeer standing in the grass just off the road. I had been watching this bird – actually a mated pair of birds – over the course of the last month. They had located their nest on the narrow shoulder and would greet me with a fine defensive display every time I slowed the car down to get a better look.  I never saw the eggs, but knew they were there simply because the parental birds were employing their “broken wing” act to lure me from it. It was an impossible location which required them to react to every single  passing car.

I figured that the adults would die of exaustion long before their eggs were successfully hatched. I, of course, was wrong and they did produce a fine little batch of killdeerlets in spite of my views.  Three fluffy little chicks became regulars at the site over the course of the following week. They would dash for the cover of the long grass or drop and freeze at the panicked request of  the frantic parents when my “dangerous” Chevy Blazer passed.

As I pulled up on that rainy day I saw only one adult. It was down in a crouching position and appeared to have sprouted a few extra legs and tails (see photo above). Since both parents usually share duty and always look alike, I can’t say whether it was the male or the female. Just to be fair in this matter,  I’ll call it a “he.”  Like a mother hen, he was sheltering his charge from the elements and paying little attention to me.  The more important question in this situation was how many birds were hidden under those wings. He looked to be at least four legs over the individual average, but it was hard to tell.

My answer came after a few minutes when the rain stopped and my presence became the sole source of irritation. The male then rose and stepped aside to reveal the presence of all three chicks (see below). This eight-legged Killdeer quickly divided into four two-legged birds. The fluffy young ran for cover and dutifully performed their freezing act upon discovering they were no longer under wing. They milled about for a few confused minutes before enacting their plan, however.

In the bird world, there are those who rear altricial, or helpless young, and those who produce precocial, or independent young. Birds, such as the killdeer who nest in exposed places, have wisely chosen the evolutionary path that led them to precocial young. Such chicks are down-covered and able to leave the nest soon after hatching in order to escape predatory eyes. They are able to feed themselves as well, but still require an adult hand – or wing.

Even when the chicks are away from the nest, the adults still protect and brood them for an extended time period. This care is almost constant for the first three days and is administered off and on for the next 14 days. At 17 days, the young acquire their full thermoregulation capabilities along with a new plumage – going from a single breast band and a downy speckled look (as seen below) to a double breast band and some real feathers. At five weeks they can fly and are truly on their own.

Based on this schedule, the parent birds will not have to pull mother hen duties for too much longer. In spite of all these attentions, the family has experienced a loss sometime this week. Today, only two chicks fled my approaching car. From the original clutch of four eggs, only three made it to chickhood, and only two of those made it into the second week of existence. It’s hard to say what predator nabbed the last chick, but mink and cooper’s hawks are potential culprits. One killdeer brood in Jamaica Bay, New York , was completely wiped out by a persistant kestral who even reached under a log to snatch one of the hiding killdeer chicks. Even though these small birds of prey don’t normally make it a habit of eating killed-deer meat, they are opportunists.

No matter how you look at it, subtraction always follows addition in the natural world.

1 Comment »

  1. Very cute story. I really do hate those birds though, your story brought a little compassion to my heart for their struggle for survival.

    Comment by homebody — May 22, 2009 @ 8:47 am

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