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Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus
Photo © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors. All rights reserved

Living with Killdeer

Charadrius vociferus
by Ruby Jung

The killdeer gave me a killer headache the day we found their nest.

I was at the garden center we used to run, changing the sign in the hot sun of late spring/early summer, probably misspelling some vital word while I was at it, craning my neck to see the top line of the slatted board, handling the metal letters carefully, since their springy hooks were brittle with age; and all the while the two birds milled back and forth behind me, unrelenting in their shrill cries. Kildeer have an improbable look to them, being medium-sized, speckled brown birds with a ring around their neck and the long beaks and long legs of a shore bird; but around here they hang out on broad expanses of mowed lawn, parks and cemeteries and so on; and as my headache came on and blossomed, they started to seem just a wee bit demonic.

I was ready to wring their necks by the time an employee came up, drawn by the noisy birds.

Killdeer on nest, Charadrius vociferus
Photo © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors. All rights reserved

"They've got to have a nest around here," I said, rubbing my temples, "and I hope the eggs aren't baking with the parents off it for so long. But I'm almost done."

"Cool!" she said, and started pacing back and forth in the gravel behind the crew-shed and the sign.

I fled shortly after, for a drink of cool water and some aspirin. Jim took me up front that afternoon, to a post that had been driven in the middle of the gravel. One kildeer was hunkered down near it; she scurried off, squawking, to join the other on the lawn and continue their shrilling from a safe distance.

"We found the nest," he said.

"Where?"

"Right there," he said, pointing.

He practically had to rub my nose in the shallow depression in the gravel that held four stone-colored eggs about the size of... kumquats, if that's any help. The moment they came into focus as eggs and not gravel had the thrill of a magic act.

Killdeer eggs, Charadrius vociferus
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

The post was to keep the tractor away from the nest when we were loading mulch from the nearby pile. It fell over a few days later in a brisk wind, luckily not over the nest but away from it. But by then we all knew where it was, and had trained our eyes to see the eggs.

We were over the amazement of the broken-wing bit by then, too. "Go chase them," Jim had told me after showing me the nest.

"I couldn't catch them. And what would I do with one if I did?"

"Go chase them," he grinned.

I obediently slogged after them. The shrilling increased, and they ran ahead of me, and then one dropped onto the driveway with one wing splayed and started fluttering, its tail raised too. Even knowing it was a trick, it broke your heart to see it. I moved closer, and the bird moved off, still fluttering that "useless" wing, until we passed some imaginary line. Suddenly, in a flurry of wings, it was airborne and flying to safety.

Except that it skimmed right over the street!

Killdeer pretending its wing is broken, Charadrius vociferus
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved

The funny thing was, they had to get your attention. They'd built just behind the crew shed up near the street, and there was a half-whisky barrel planted in flowers by its door. When I went up there to water they'd come off the nest and start trying to lure me away. If I just turned my back on them and returned to the beds leading to the garden center, they'd follow me, shrieking. But if I followed them, they'd do their dance and spring into the air, and go back to the nest, presumably satisfied they'd outwitted the dangerous predator.

They finally got to the point that they knew me and Jim. When we'd approach the nest, they'd hop off silently and watch us, but they'd let us go up and look at the eggs. But if a customer blundered into their area, they'd still go into the full routine. We tried to keep people away from them, figuring they had enough to contend with, with the staff; but once in a while, when a child we knew came along, we'd show the child. "Poor birdy," they'd always say. "It's hurt!"

"Catch it, maybe we can nurse it back to health," Jim would urge them, waiting for the look of amazed delight on the child's face when the "injured" bird burst into flight.

They sat on that nest so long I was sure the eggs had fried and they just didn't realize it. Jim just shook his head at me.

Then one day, when we had something to do after work and I was in a particular hurry to get it over with, Jim said he had something to show me. I bitched and moaned and followed him up there.

One parent was at the nest with a broken egg and a bedraggled chick hanging out of it. The other was standing at the edge of the rock-pile. The other eggs were gone.

"What happened?" I wailed, and at the sound of my voice three chicks stumbled off toward the parent on the rocks.

"They hatched out!" Jim told me.

You could be looking right at the fluffy little chick, and when it stopped you couldn't see it. It hurt your eyes, it was so odd. They weren't light on their long legs yet, lurching over the rough pebbles. By the next day three had become nimble (we don't think that last one made it through the night), following the parents in the mowed swath along the highway and down the drive to the garden center, gradually gaining the same markings as they grew. Another fell by the wayside, the victim, we assumed, of cats or foxes, but two made it. We had trouble telling the young from the parents by the time fall was in the air and one day they left.

Being a ground-nesting bird is a tough way to make a living. But year after year, the brave and stubborn killdeer pull it off, and I count myself privileged to have seen a pair do it.


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The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri

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