Wild Ideas: Shorebirds in the driveway

A killdeer parent with one egg showing.
A killdeer parent with one egg showing. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Where does a shorebird nest when it’s far away from the shore? In a driveway, of course.

That’s at least a common phenomenon with the killdeer, named for the sound of its piercing call. A species that started out as a shorebird, it has adapted to living inland as well, especially near people. This is partly because we humans cleared much of what was once forest land, providing the open areas relatively clear of vegetation that this plover prefers for foraging and nesting. Along with driveways, these areas include golf courses, and, as I’ve found, rings for exercising horses.

Killdeer nests are just shallow scrapes in the ground, to which the birds add other materials, especially pebbles. They pick up some of these nest materials as they are leaving and toss them over their shoulder into the nest, according to All About Birds, which adds that one nest in Oklahoma reportedly had accumulated 1,500 pebbles this way.

Recently, Flint Hill resident Phil Irwin, owner of the B&B Caledonia Farm 1812, contacted me about a pair of killdeer that had nested in the parking area at the end of his driveway. Perhaps they knew that the farm is on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail? Phil says he has been alerting trail goers about the nest.

In visiting the nest site June 6, I found that it wasn’t smack in the middle of the parking area but instead a bit off to the side. After almost running over the nest himself before he saw it, Phil put a traffic cone and a log on the more-trafficked side of the nest to help keep other drivers avoid it, he says.

The killdeer parents rejoin, with the one on the right on the nest.
The killdeer parents rejoin, with the one on the right on the nest. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Killdeer parents alternate in brooding the eggs, and males and females don’t differ in appearance, so I wasn’t sure which I was seeing on the nest the day I visited, but the other parent was just a few yards away. In approaching the nest slowly and quietly to get a few photos of the four eggs in it (an average-size clutch for killdeer), the parent on the nest kept a wary eye on me while frequently calling. Perhaps it was trying to warn me off or to bring its mate, which showed no interest in coming to help.

Killdeer parents will often try to lure predators away by feigning a broken wing, dragging it on the ground to make the adult seem easy prey. But the one on the nest didn’t do this, perhaps because I was too close or because there were also workmen, with a big truck, just a few yards from the nest, so the bird may have realized that the trick wouldn’t work in this case. Killdeer will also stretch their necks up, expanding the black bands on them and this making the birds more imposing to potential predators. The killdeer on the nest was doing this, along with spreading out its feathers to cover the eggs.

I managed to get a good look at three of the eggs, taking a couple of photos, before backing off to leave the parents alone. The eggs were relatively large and mottled with black, blending in well with the driveway. After I backed off, the other killdeer came over and hung around with its mate.

The eggs normally hatch out in 24-28 days, the young birds inside starting to crack the shells 18-36 hours before emerging. Phil says he can’t remember when he first saw the eggs but figures they should be close to hatching as I’m writing this, a week after I took the photos. Once the young birds hatch, the parents take away the shell fragments, and often use the site again for another brood.

I’ve only seen young killdeer when they were following their parents around, but new hatchlings are supposed to be really cute little fluff balls, according to sources I checked. They are also precocial — well developed when they hatch. Basically, they’re born with their running shoes on, are ready to follow their parents and forage for themselves as soon as their feathers dry, within hours of hatching out.

Although the hatchlings are well developed, they can’t fly for about five weeks, so depend on their parents for protection. The parents move the brood to another location, within 120 feet, on the first day, according to Stokes Nature Guides’ “A Guide to Bird Behavior” (Volume 3). The family sometimes moves out of the immediate area of the nest before the birds fledge, but the parents may still guard the nest’s location if they plan to use it again that year.

While killdeer parents’ strategy to encourage their young to follow them soon after hatching works well when the nest is on the ground, it can be hazardous in another place killdeers often nest — flat gravel rooftops, according to All About Birds. In this case, the young can be injured or killed in trying to follow their parents. Other downsides to adapting to humans for the killdeer include ingesting pesticides we are prone to using, and getting hit by cars or killed by domestic cats.

Until the young can fly, the Stokes guide says, the parents still watch over them, sometimes while having a second brood, with one parent brooding the eggs while the other guards the fledglings. Family groups often stay together to migrate, joining other killdeer families.

While killdeer can fly, like most shorebirds they spend most of their lives on the ground, foraging for food and nesting there. But also true to their shore roots, the adults swim well in swift-moving water, with even the young being able to navigate small streams, according to All About Birds.

© 2016 Pam Owen

If you find a fawn . . .

Young fawns generally do not fear humans. This one was happily foraging for plants in a garden in Sperryville recently, freezing when photographers got within a few feet of it.
Young fawns generally do not fear humans. This one was happily foraging for plants in a garden in Sperryville recently, freezing when photographers got within a few feet of it. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Fawn haiku

Left or loved, alone.
Under a tree, unmoving
Waits for life, the fawn.

— Charlene James-Duguid, Touchstone Studio, Amissville (for more of her writing, go to Vox Poetica.)

It’s that time of year again. Little spotted fawns are being discovered lying quietly, apparently abandoned by their mothers. In fact, it’s normal for moms to leave their fawns, which know to lie still, alone for several hours while the moms forage for food. Fawns have little odor when it is young, so can usually escape detection by predators, and disturbing a fawn could cause more danger for it than leaving it alone.

For more information, read “If You Find a Fawn, Leave it Alone” on the website of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. If you think a fawn is injured or abandoned, call your local licensed wildlife rehabilitator, the Wildlife Rescue Hotline, 703-440-0800, or the Wildlife Center of Virginia, 540-942-9453.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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