Is there anything cuter than a downy little chick? (Well, maybe kittens.) But a chick’s soft fuzzy body, alert eyes and comforting peeping sounds are so appealing. You’ve just got to say, “Awww!”
So, it is no wonder that I was quite taken with the three baby Killdeer chicks we saw at the Coastal Bend College pond last weekend. I was even more delighted, because I had the members of the Beginning Birding class along to share the experience. We all had a good look at the tiny balls of fluff running along the edge of the pond.
Killdeer make their presence known by their loud and insistent calling. Killdeer are easily agitated, so it seems they are always calling out “kil-dee” or “til-dee,” and sometimes just “dee-dee-dee.” You can see how it got its name. The bird that makes the kildee sound is the killdee-er.
Killdeer are shorebirds. They are one of the 10 or so plover species found in North America. A plover (usually pronounced “pluh-ver”) is different from a sandpiper in that it has a short bill with a slightly bulbous hardened tip. They are sturdy little birds with compact bodies. In general, plovers frequent beaches and the edges of ponds and wetlands.
The Killdeer is a bit of an exception in that it is found on farmlands, football fields, parks and golf courses, sometimes quite far from water. They are resident throughout the southern United States and Mexico. In winter, the populations swell with the influx of Killdeer from the northern states and Canada. Sometimes, where food is plentiful, a hundred or more Killdeer will gather.
During the breeding season, which begins in late February in South Texas, Killdeer will pair off and begin their courtship. Short flights, “kill-deeing” and other mutual displays start the pair formation. The bonding is complete when the two birds pivot with their breasts on bare ground producing a shallow nest scrape. Typically, they also reach out for small pebbles and objects and pull them to the edge of the scrape. A Killdeer nest is little more than a depression on gravelly ground. The eggs, when laid, are well camouflaged with specks and resemble pebbles on a pebbly background.
Even though the nest is hard to find, an occasional predator (or a large animal like a cow) can come upon it. The parent bird scolds the intruder and tries to drive it away with aggression displays. If this does not work, the Killdeer then does a very special thing. It pretends it has a broken wing. It runs a little way from the nest (or chicks) and drops one of its wings and hobbles for a few steps. A predator cannot resist an injured bird, especially if it appears to be unable to fly. The predator follows. The Killdeer shouts out its kill-dee call, drags its wing and hobbles a few paces further. Again the predator follows. Eventually, the bird has led the danger well away from the eggs or young, and it flies up and away. The adult won’t go back to the nest until it is sure the intruder has given up.
If the eggs have hatched, the chicks know to stay put if danger threatens. By standing stock-still, the tiny balls of grey and white fluff resemble the terrain around them. If you spot one, you may find yourself staring and wondering if it is indeed a chick. Keep watching. Soon enough the parent will call, and the chick will move a few steps.
Killdeer parents are very vigilant. Although not standing right next to their chicks, they nevertheless are constantly on guard. However, the parents do not feed their young. Once hatched, the chicks must feed themselves. They pick along the ground and mud of a pond edge, finding small insects and invertebrates. Their diet is strictly animal based.
The Killdeer’s reproductive strategy is characteristic of shorebirds, ducks, cranes and chicken-like birds. Within a short time after hatching, the young are able to walk and feed themselves. They are covered with down, which helps to insulate them. They know to follow the parent and will go to her to cuddle and warm up from time to time. The chicks grow slowly, and it may take months until they are fully feathered and the parent’s size. This type of young is called precocial young. You can see the connection to precocious, meaning mature for its age.
The opposite strategy, used by most songbirds, doves and hummingbirds is called altricial. Altricial young are hatched out naked, blind and totally helpless. But they grow fast and, within two to three weeks, are the same size as the parents. They will have grown feathers. At that point, they leave the nest and at least attempt to fly. But they follow their parents around begging for food for a few more days.
The three little Killdeer chicks were definitely precocious. One pecked at food bits. One ran a little, and then stopped still. One peeked out from behind a stone. Their black neckbands against their white breasts stood out against the dull background. The chicks seemed to be independent and on their own.
The parents were nearby, watching. I suspect they knew we humans were a few yards away, watching too. I wonder if they had any idea how charming their chicks were!