In our yard we have a large vegetable garden and a not as large flower garden. The flower garden has walkways covered in wood chips from tree branches that were taken down a few years ago and chipped for just this purpose.
Our early spring has given us the chance to get a head start on the gardens, including cleaning up the flower beds from last year, pulling weeds that have sprouted around the beds, and generally improving things.
Last week we discovered something that has altered our plans a bit. We found a nest in the wood chips at the edge of the flower garden. It belongs to Mrs. Killdeer.
The killdeer is a member of the plover family, and as such is technically a shore bird, like the sandpiper, though they seem to prefer open areas like fields and pastures to the shore. They have longish, spindly legs, and they run around like crazy in quick spurts. They are named not for their ability to take down whitetail deer, but rather because their call is supposed to sound like “kill-deer.”
Unlike some birds, they don’t really build a nest. They find a spot on the ground that looks like a good place to lay eggs. In our case, it was in wood chips. Unless you know just where to look, you’d never see her. She blends in really well, with the horizontal stripes on her neck blending in perfectly with the ground around her.
For 24 days, the mother sits on the eggs, with occasional help from the dad, I suppose, and then when the little ones are hatched, they walk away together as a family.
The most interesting thing about killdeers is how the mother protects the eggs. The first strategy is to get off the nest and walk away, hoping the predator (in this case, me) will follow. The second strategy is for her to nestle down somewhere away from the nest, pretending that she’s sitting on a nest. The clever predator will then assume the eggs are over there, and not where they really are.
The third, and most interesting strategy, which seems to be a last resort, is for her to run away, pretending to have a broken wing. In the world of predators (human or animal) going for the weak and injured is always a good bet. So, the hunter pursues her, and ignores the nest.
Basically, all these strategies put the mother at risk in order to protect the un-hatched eggs. They are diversionary tactics to get a predator to think about eating the mother instead of her babies.
I guess we humans often sacrifice for our kids, but the killdeer really takes it to a high level of self-sacrifice. I can’t help but admire her dedication.
So, while we’re continuing to work on the garden, we’re trying to avoid getting too close to her nest. She seems to have figured out that we’re not going to hurt her or her babies, and mostly stays on the nest, even if we get 10-15 feet away, but she watches us carefully.
As much as I’d like to work on the flower beds near the nest, we’ve decided to give her her space. We hope the eggs make it to 24 days, and that Mrs. and Mr. Killdeer will enjoy their new family throughout the summer.