The precocial killdeer

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

The killdeer Charadrius vociferous, a member of the plover family, is named for its piercing call. On a leisurely walk at the back of our property, I heard the familiar “kill-dee!” and noted a female killdeer sprinting away from her nest. In an effort to divert my attention, she went into the usual broken wing act, crying in a pitiful voice. Treading carefully, I finally located the nest; a shallow scrape in the gravel, beautifully camouflaged and endowed with four brown speckled eggs. When I glanced away toward the frantic mother, it was very hard to relocate the nest when I looked back, although I had not moved an inch. I took a quick photo and promptly left the mother in peace.

Born at last
For several weeks Fergus (the Lab) and I would wander past the little nest. I would marvel at the fact that they were still intact. Finally, on one sunny afternoon, I managed to distract Fergus away from the area by saying the word ‘bunny’. After he had bolted into the bush, I checked the nest to find four beautiful, fuzzy, killdeer infants, soaking up the sun’s rays. I left quickly, accompanied by the screams of the concerned parents.
The next day they were gone; all evidence that they had ever been there had disappeared. I wondered if something had found and eaten them. However, a little research revealed that once the babies leave the nest, the parents clean up every scrap of eggshell. If these babies had succumbed to the ravages of a predator, certainly there would been some remains of the nest’s contents. Minutes later I heard the killdeer parents calling their young. I can only assume that all was well with the baby birds.

Precocial indeed
The killdeer offspring are among the cutest of baby birds. Fluffy replicas of their parents, they come out of the egg running and with eyes open. These ‘precocial’ babies are much closer to independence than most newborn birds. They are incubated longer and so are further developed at birth. Camouflage aids in their survival rate after hatching. One of the first lessons is to teach the chicks to ‘freeze’ on signal from the parents. The fact that the offspring are so cute is often an attraction for curious onlookers, especially children. Parents need to make their own offspring aware of the importance of leaving things in nature as they found them. A curious human intruder can seriously disturb a family of killdeers or other birds, sometimes causing the death of the baby birds.
The killdeer is very helpful to farmers because of the large numbers of insect pests which they consume. Unfortunately, they are quite vulnerable to pesticide poisoning. The use of these chemicals has a very negative impact on the entire food chain. I don’t need to see a “pesticide use” sign to know when the stuff has been sprayed. The odour lingers for a couple of days. Any birds which eat insects or worms are affected, along with countless other species. Thank goodness recent legislation has dispensed with the residential use of such poisons. It is the least we can do to help repair some of the damage toward nature we have caused.