Welcome to another edition of the Marsh Musings. You know, I have never been much of a superstitious person. I don’t swerve dramatically when a black cat crosses my path or tackle someone to save them from walking under a ladder. I have even stepped on cracks and my mom seems to be walking just fine. For some reason though, I have always trusted the predictions of Punxsutawney Phil, the all-knowing groundhog. Even as a kid, I was amazed at how a groundhog could tell a shift in seasons by simply seeing his shadow. As it turns out, he never could. My trust in Phil went down the drain this year, but fortunately we have amazing weather to take my mind off of it.
How do I know Phil was wrong, you ask? Every year, I can always tell spring is close with the arrival of a cute, yet loud, shorebird called a Killdeer. These little guys are more than happy to let you know they have arrived, and get their name from their shrill, wailing kill-deer call they give so often. In fact, they are so noisy that naturalists in the 18th century referred to them as Chattering and Noisy Plovers because of the sheer loudness of their calls. Despite their loud and sometimes obnoxious calling, they possess some of the neatest adaptations and predator deterrence behaviors of any bird at the Bottoms.
One of the most spectacular behaviors of Killdeer is the creation and protection of their nests. Most of you probably think of a carefully woven nest high in a tree when you picture a bird nest. Unlike a lot of birds though, a killdeer’s nest is a simple scrape, approximately 3 inches across, on a slightly elevated area on the ground. Males will also make several other scrapes in close proximity to the nest in an attempt to confuse predators in search of their nests.
Never seen one of these nests? Chances are you walked right by it! Killdeer eggs are light in color, speckled, and often look like rocks; all adaptations that help the eggs blend in with their surroundings. To top it off, Killdeer, unlike most other birds, do not add nesting materials to the nest until after the eggs are laid. They tend to favor lighter colored items and add an eclectic array of objects to their nest, including rocks, shells, sticks, and even trash in an effort to help them blend in and further camouflage their eggs.
Their nests are just the beginning of interesting adaptations and defenses killdeer use to deter and confuse predators. In an effort to defend the nest, Killdeer will distract predators by calling loudly, bobbing their bodies up and down, and running away from the nest as fast as they can. Sometimes they run so fast that it appears their little legs are going to give out on them! Heck, I get tired just watching them run. Just when I think they are going to trip or die of exhaustion, they somehow find the energy to keep running, fly a short distance, and then start running again. If these actions fail, they resort to a behavior called a broken-wing display, where they attempt to lure predators away from the nest by faking a wing injury. This distracts the predator and makes it difficult to find the eggs once disoriented. These interesting deterrents do not work on large, hooved animals though. Instead, they fluff up, position their tail above their head, and run at the animal to change its path.
Killdeer are birds that are often overlooked, but they are truly one of my favorite parts of spring. Are you dying to see Killdeer after reading about them, but fail to live within driving distance of the Bottoms? Not to fret! Killdeer are one of the least water-associated of all shorebirds. In fact, they are common to lawns, parking lots, golf courses and even agricultural fields. So get outside, listen for the iconic kill-deer call, and welcome spring with open arms. Until next time!
Eric Giesing is the director of education at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center. Dr. Dan Witt is a retired urologist.