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The Precocious Killdeer

Baby KilldeerBaby killdeer always come out running. They hatch with their eyes open, and as soon as their downy feathers dry, they start scurrying about, following their parents and searching the ground for something to eat.

That's what the killdeer chick at left is doing.

Newly-hatched killdeer can't fly, and they need their killdeer parents for protection and guidance, but they are a lot closer to independence than most baby birds.

Seeing fluffy killdeer chicks is one of the pleasures of summer. Although they are lively right away, just-hatched killdeer are like new fawns, a bit tottery and clumsy on their overly-long legs. It's worth keeping an eye out for killdeer over the next couple of months, on the chance of glimpsing the endearing infants.

The killdeer's broken-wing display

You sometimes see an adult killdeer in gravel, such as along a rocky railroad easement, or on a dirt road. As you approach, the killdeer may suddenly develop a broken wing. It struggles in front of you, as if it can barely walk, let alone fly. One or both wings drag pitifully on the ground.

Killdeer with If your instinct to rescue the killdeer overcomes you, and you try to catch the bird, it almost lets you reach out and pick it up. But somehow, while struggling to keep its balance, the killdeer manages to stay one step ahead of you. As you pursue it, the killdeer leads you farther and farther away from its four downy killdeer babies crouching on the ground or half hidden under a tiny bush.

When the killdeer feels that the young are safe from you, its broken wing heals suddenly, and the bird flies away, calling a loud "KILL-DEE" that sounds like a jeer.

After you've been fooled a time or two by the broken wing display, you don't give the deceiving adult killdeer a second glance. Immediately, you look around for the killdeer babies. You may see one disappearing into the grass or flattening itself on the ground and freezing.

Two types of baby birds

Newly hatched killdeerBaby birds that hatch with their running shoes on are called precocial. Precocial means "ripened beforehand." (The word comes from the same Latin source as "precocious.") This newly hatched killdeer chick, with bright eyes and fluffy feathers, is copyright Scott and Tami Barrick. (It is shown here with their permission.)

Other precocial birds besides killdeer are chickens, ducks, and quail. None of these precocial babies lies in the nest and gets waited on.

Birds that hatch blind, naked, and helpless are called altricial, which comes from a Greek word meaning "wet nurse." Robins are altricial, as are blue jays, cardinals and most other birds. The hatchlings lie helplessly in their nests, relying utterly on their parents to bring them food and push it down their throats. It's two weeks or more before they mature enough to leave the nest, and even after they leave it, their parents are still feeding them.

Precocial birds stay in the egg twice as long as altricial birds, so they have more time to develop. A one-day-old killdeer chick is actually two weeks older than a one-day-old robin nestling. Although adult robins and killdeer are the same size, a killdeer's egg is twice as big as a robin's. There's more nourishment built into the killdeer egg, to sustain the embryo for its longer time in the shell.

Where killdeer put their nests

Killdeer nest on open ground, often on gravel. They may use a slight depression in the gravel to hold the eggs, but they don't line it at all, or line it only with a few stones. Since there is no structure to stand out from its surroundings, a killdeer nest blends marvelously into the background. Furthermore, the speckled eggs themselves look like stones.

killdeer with eggThe lovely photo at right shows an adult killdeer with the first egg laid in the "nest," which is just a slight depression in the gravel. Dawn Eason took this photo and kindly allowed us to show it on the Birdwatching Dot Com website.

My first killdeer nest was on a railroad easement. I suddenly noticed a killdeer when it flew up from a crouched position on the gravel. I made mental note of a bush close to the spot and walked straight to the site. Nevertheless, it took me a long time before I found the nest. I examined the ground carefully each time I moved my feet, to make sure I didn't step on the eggs.

Killdeer eggsWhen I finally found the killdeer nest, I glanced away for a moment, and when I looked back again, the eggs had vanished! After some more puzzled study, I saw the eggs materialize again out of the pattern of pebbles.

Killdeer are tolerant of humans. I once observed a pair nesting in the parking lot of some public tennis courts. The female chose to lay her eggs about four inches away from the curb of the main walk. Hundreds of people were passing by the killdeer nest every day. When I looked at the location of the nest, I thought its chances of success were slight.

Nevertheless, day after day the mother and father killdeer took turns sitting on the eggs, not in the least perturbed by the human traffic. Three of the four eggs hatched, and the babies ran around in the parking lot with their parents for a couple of weeks, until the young could fly, to the extreme pleasure of visitors to the tennis courts.

How long it takes killdeer eggs to hatch

Killdeer NestThe parent killdeer start sitting on the eggs to incubate them as soon as all the eggs have been laid. The killdeer embryos inside the first-laid three eggs do not start developing while the eggs are sitting out in the cold. But when they feel the warmth of the parent killdeer, all four killdeer embryos start developing at the same time.

So even though the first-laid egg spends a longer time in the shell than the last-laid, all the killdeer chicks have the same development period. It takes 24 to 28 days of incubating for the chicks to hatch.

Shorebirds away from water

Although killdeer are technically in the family of shorebirds, they are unusual shorebirds in that they often nest and live far from water. They like to nest in gravel, and they will take it where they find it. I once saw a newly-hatched killdeer chick in front of the Co-ed Theater in Fairfield, Iowa. An adult killdeer was leading it on foot down the sidewalk. Undoubtedly the "nest" was on one of the graveled roofs in town.

The killdeer is a bird that gets along well with man, taking advantage of whatever habitat man provides or preserves, field or unpaved road or rooftop. It also appreciates the water's edge, though, and it can often be found on the shores of ponds and lakes.

Seasons of the killdeer

Each year, in February, the killdeer appears in the Midwest. Its high, drawn-out "Keee" or "Kill-deer" signals spring long before the robins begin to sing. It's also the last migrant to leave in the fall, remaining in the Midwest into November.

My favorite time for killdeer is summer, when the babies are about. Baby killdeer are -- I can't think of a more scientific way to say it -- "cute." Precocial birds, like baby chickens and baby ducks, are all cute. In contrast, altricial bird babies, like robins and blue jays, are not cute. They are hideous, blind, bald, wrinkly-skinned little lizards that only a mother could love.

But baby killdeer are small, bright-eyed, fluffy replicas of their parents. Just seeing one will bring a smile to the grouchiest face in town. It's a universal, irresistible instinct to be enchanted by the miniature, by dolls, toy trains, model airplanes and boats. The precocial baby bird is the best example of the model maker's art.

© 1997 by Diane Porter

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