Monday, January 24, 2011

Thanks to clever camouflage, killdeer nests are elusive


Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 23, 2011)

Killdeer are fast runners. They scurry by when I'm taking walks and rush out of the way when I'm driving down our dirt driveway. They move so quickly that their slender legs seem to disappear, making them look more like cartoon characters or windup toys than the land-loving shorebirds they actually are.

Although the killdeer is a type of plover, you are more likely to see one on a golf course, field, pasture or even your front lawn than at the beach. These 10-inch-long birds are easy to identify. They have white bellies, tawny backs and two black neckbands. They also make a distinctive cry when disturbed. A startled killdeer will take to the air with a scolding screech and circle overhead. Its flight is erratic. Intermittently, it flaps its wings frantically and glides effortlessly. It releases a shrill wail as it flies.

I see killdeer all the time. They might like the many sandy paths we have that don't get much traffic. Killdeer nest in such areas, although to call the places they lay their eggs "nests" smacks of hyperbole. A killdeer nest looks like … well, it looks like the ground. The birds meagerly attempt to scratch away dirt. I'm not talking about a big hole but a mere indentation. Into this minimal space, the female deposits four to six eggs. Once she has laid her eggs, the birds add light-colored stones, sticks and bits of shell to camouflage the nestlings.

In the 20 years I've lived here, I've come upon a killdeer nest only once. I was walking along an infrequently used path when I saw what looked like a bird with a wounded wing. The old "my wing is broken" trick is a killdeer specialty. When it senses danger, a mother or father bird will feign injury to divert a potential enemy's attention away from the eggs or baby birds. The adult bird does this by dragging one of its wings along the ground as it moves away from the nest site. Every now and then, it cries out plaintively, bobs up and down and fans its tail feathers.

It's a captivating spectacle. I can see how it might fool a hungry animal in search of an easy meal. Humans, however, are not as easy to trick. I allowed the bird to continue by pretending to be distracted. All the while, I was mentally mapping the spot so I could return later. I let the bird draw me away until it finally flew off. Later, I returned to the spot thinking I'd locate the nest in a flash.

It didn't happen.

I walked back and forth, but no matter how many times I carefully crisscrossed the spot where I first saw the killdeer, I couldn't find any sign of a nest. Then, just as I was about to admit defeat, I spotted it. Several buff-colored eggs with mottled brown and tan marks were nestled together in a shallow hole in the middle of the driveway. The nest blended so seamlessly with its surroundings, it was hidden in plain sight. I looked at the eggs but didn't touch anything. Killdeer, like many birds, will abandon eggs if they think they've been disturbed.

It was years ago when I saw that nest. With all the killdeer on our property, there must be many others, but I never discovered them. That's either a tribute to the birds' clever camouflage or an indication of how little time I've dedicated to the art of nest detection. Whatever the reason, I'm happy to have so many of these bug-eating plovers in the area. Killdeer eat seeds and all sorts of invertebrates, including earthworms, grasshoppers, beetles and the larvae of water bugs. They will even consume live frogs or dead minnows when necessary.

Killdeer are not my favorite birds, but because there are many of them, they are easy to observe. You don't have to love a critter to appreciate its special characteristics, unusual habits and distinctive behaviors. Perhaps one of these days I'll chance upon another killdeer nest. Until then, I'll get a kick out of listening to them scold me for getting too close as they scurry away.

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