On a hot summer day, when you can’t escape by other means, let Wisconsin’s most common plover remind you of cool lakeshores up north. The killdeer, with its eponymous call, is a familiar sight and sound in all parts of the state. You may see them on your commute to work, in urban or rural areas, in driveways, on playgrounds or flat-topped roofs; anywhere there is a flat, open habitat. The least water-associated of the shorebirds, they are nonetheless shorebirds, and their behavior—running about on long legs, stopping to observe, swooping and crying in low circles on their deep v-shaped wings—all attest to this.
Goose Pond Sanctuary has hosted many killdeer broods over the years, but recently a female “built” her nest right in the middle of the Kampen Road residence parking lot! “Built” is qualified because killdeer nests are really simple scrapes dug into the bare ground to which the birds may add pebbles, sticks, and scraps of vegetation or garbage after egg-laying has commenced. According to Robbins, a typical clutch is four eggs, or sometimes three, but our first observations of the Kampen Road nest found only two eggs. Late nest attempts may not have the 'typical' four egg clutch. We roped off the parking lot so our killdeer can incubate and egg-lay in peace. Watching her is a good reminder of the difficulties of parenthood, however, as she is on the nest all day, even as the gravel heats up around her and temperatures climb with the sun. During the heat of midday, we noticed that she does not sit on the nest, but stands over the nest, probably to shield the eggs from the intense sun. Killdeer are known to soak their belly feathers in water in order to wet the eggs before standing over them; this cools the eggs as the water evaporates.
Laying eggs directly on the ground is risky, particularly in high-traffic areas such as graveled road or railroad shoulders, parking lots, parks, and golf courses, all areas where killdeer nests are often found. The defenses that killdeer have developed to protect their exposed nests include highly camouflaged eggs, and the famous feint, or broken-wing display, that attempts to lure predators away from the nest by imitating an injured bird (easy prey). If you come very near to a nest, the brave parent may puff up, and fan her tail in an attempt to look threatening. Another adaptation of the killdeer to surviving in a very open habitat is that it lays eggs that are proportionally quite large, allowing for more development to occur in the egg, and leading to precocial chicks. Newly-hatched chicks have their eyes open, and can run about as soon as their down dries. After 25 days, the young can fly. The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas found fledged young as late as September 6.
Look for the killdeer in your area this summer, and even this winter! Rare winter residents are regularly reported during Wisconsin Christmas Bird Counts. Whenever and wherever you spot one, we hope you enjoy this special shorebird.
Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward