News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

August 8, 2010

The Off Season: Killdeer losing voices as summer moves on

TERRE HAUTE — It was on one of our evening walks not long ago that my wife and I noticed at almost the same time that we couldn’t hear the killdeer screeching their usual warnings out to us. This summer’s heat has been so brutal that I commented that perhaps the noisy long-legged birds all were meeting in town at the firehouse to enjoy the air conditioning, but I have to admit that I miss hearing and watching our frantic little brown and white friends.

By August, the bugs who reside in the fencerows and fields along our circuit know the jig is up — they’d better scream as loud as they can and enjoy their brief lives to the fullest because they instinctively know the season isn’t going to last much longer. It is my belief that some take unnecessary chances on the roadways, dodging between oncoming cars, because of that fatalistic knowledge.

But the killdeer, who most often beat even the earliest spring robins to our lawn and to the fields that surround our place, are constant companions for us from the time we can get out on our roadside walks, sometimes in late February. They’ll stay until it’s mid-November, but they become more inconspicuous with each passing week, particularly as we have to move our walks later and later into the evening to beat some of the mugginess and heat. The bugs buzz on, but the killdeer seem to be losing their voices, leaving the roadside squawking to the same belligerent red-wing blackbirds that always seem to be waiting, as if on guard duty, on the same fence posts and stands of Queen Anne’s Lace each day.  

Killdeer are nervous power walkers who rarely stand still long enough for us to get a good look at them. Seemingly always in need of a strong tranquilizer, they get along well with the changes human beings wreak on nature, taking advantage of just about any habitat we choose to leave for them: graveled rooftops, barren or cultivated fields, muddy pond banks, golf courses, football fields, even railroad beds. My wife and I once saw a nesting mother setting up residence in the gravel of a busy used car parking lot, making sure that anyone who came close was told to go stake their own claim someplace else.

They are also fiercely independent. Killdeer won’t visit birdfeeders; they aren’t looking for a handout, preferring to do their own thing whether humans like it or not. They are noisy, screeching their familiar “kill-dee” in flight or as they bob and weave along the ground like a drunken cowhand at a barn dance. In fact, eighteenth century ornithologists called them “chattering plovers” for a reason: They really can’t keep their beaks shut.

A killdeer is, indeed, a plover, a shorebird — the word originates from “plovier,” a 13th century word for “rainbird.” They enjoy water, can and do swim, and often you’ll find them in abundance on local sandbars and beaches, strutting along in their familiar, halting, stop-and-start way, hoping to scare up a water strider or beetle, even a frog or small crawfish. A quick trip to just about any area creek or river bank is going to result in a variety of raccoon, deer, skunk and bobcat tracks, but mingled among them will be those of the killdeer, who seems to be willing to live anywhere, eat anything, and talk to anyone who’s willing to listen.

According to a wonderful article by Diane Porter that I found on the Web at birdwatching.com, killdeer are unlike most other birds that spend their time in Indiana. They nest, of course, on the ground, and their young are born “precocial,” a word that originates from the same Latin root as “precocious” and means “ripened.” In other words, baby killdeer, like quail and ducks, are born ready to run; they already have down and open, focused eyes. Just after emerging from their eggs — in which they spend up to an additional two weeks in a larger, more comfortable space — baby killdeer immediately begin to follow their parents around to learn the tricks of the trade.

Killdeer nests are interesting places, too. The birds like light-colored stones, shells, sticks, and even roadside trash as building materials, and it is not uncommon for the fathers to sit the nest as much as the mother. In another of nature’s great mysteries, killdeer eggs — which are a speckled brown and white — almost magically blend into their surroundings. I imagine that more nests are stepped on or driven over by accident rather than raided and robbed.

In the early summer, when the nests are made and the eggs laid, Joanie and I enjoy watching the shows the killdeer put on for us. Fiercely protective, some killdeer will puff themselves up and charge at anything or anyone who ventures a little too close to their turf. More likely, however, they will turn in Academy Award-worthy performances, often faking a broken wing in an attempt to lead the trespasser away from a nest or hatchlings. We’ve seen both dramas played out and have gotten used to being carefully watched as we make our way down the road in killdeer country.

Killdeer don’t head too far south for the winter, which is comforting to know. They aren’t “snowbirds” like grandparents and great-aunts, who head to Florida when the cold air slips into the state from Canada. Some may actually stick around in milder seasons, but most feel New Jersey or Virginia is about as far south as they need to go.

We like that idea. Killdeer, like older children, I suppose, never seem to want us to get too close to them, but it’s nice to know that they really don’t want us to be too far away, either.

On a typical evening walk, my wife and I talk our way through the miles. But if the conversation ever lags, the killdeer, for at least most of the year, will talk and talk and talk…

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com to learn more about his books. Mike will be speaking and signing books at 6:30 p.m. CST Aug. 12 at the Marshall (Ill.) Public Library.

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