Killdeer, the Harbingers of Spring

In Whispers From the Past, Charles receives a letter from Emily, wherein she calls the Killdeers, the harbingers of spring. In southeast Idaho, the ground nesting Killdeer arrive in the early spring, and usually race around for a week or two before establishing their nests.

We have one pair that have nested in our pasture for the past several years. They typically lay their eggs  before the nights rise above freezing. This presents a problem as we usually start irrigating as much as several weeks before their eggs hatch. The concern is that the cold water and the freezing temperatures may drive the brooding Killdeer from her/his nest.

Killdeer nest marked by post
The hidden nest is marked by the steel post, top and right of center.
Close up of Killdeer nest
Close up of the clutch of four Killdeer eggs. The cow pie nest is largely hidden by sticks the parents have brought in to better camouflage the nest.

So far, we have always managed to keep enough water off the nesting site to allow the parents to hatch the chicks. This year was a little different in that we have had a late spring, and an unusually heavy rainfall for May. The temperatures have been steadfastly cool, but the nights have been generally above freezing.

Each day as I have moved my pipe, the Killdeers have done their best to lead me away from their nest. After locating the clutch, I marked the nest so I wouldn’t accidentally step on it. Over the past few weeks, I have watched with interest as the four mottled eggs have lain in their hollowed out cow pie, awaiting the emergence of the chicks.

Killdeer chicks shortly after hatching
The Killdeer chicks as I found them in the early morning.

This morning, when I went out to move and start my pipe, the Killdeers were exceptionally agitated. I checked the nest and found four tiny balls of fuzz, hunkered down and dong their best to play dead. Their tiny bodies moved in rhythm with their breathing, and some of them had their eyes open, but otherwise they were completely immobile.

Killdeer chicks just before they left the nest
The Killdeer chicks just before they left the nest. The two on the right had already been wandering. I caught them and returned them to the nest so I could take one more quick family picture. Note the white ruff on the back of the chick’s head. Not sure if this is an indicator of sex or not. The other three don’t have the white ruff.

By early afternoon the chicks were moving, and by mid to late afternoon they had left their nest and were following their parents out into the great wide world. I didn’t get any pictures of them standing, but about two-thirds of their height is in their long, gangly legs.

My experience with the Killdeer this spring reminded me of a spring about forty years ago. I was out in the field doing tractor work. I was driving along minding my own business when a motion near my front tire caught my attention. It took me a few seconds to identify it as a Killdeer attacking the tire, but as soon as I did, I immediately slammed on the brakes. The Killdeer continued to attack the tire until I climbed down from the cab to see what in the world had the bird so upset. The Killdeer immediately reverted to her normal behavior and tried leading me away. There, no more than twelve inches in front of the tire, was the nest.

I backed up, swung the tractor wide enough to miss the nest, and went back to working the field. That is the one and only time I have ever seen or heard of a Killdeer attacking to defend her/his nest, rather than doing the wounded bird impersonation in an attempt to lead the intruder away from its nest.

Now that the babies are safely out of the nest, I can turn the cattle into the north pasture and get back to work.

Until next time …