Laura Dean Bennett
Those of us who fancy ourselves bird-lovers are always thrilled to see an unusual species.
This time of year, the brave little plovers called the killdeer are calling attention to themselves as they protect their eggs with their dramatic “dragging wing” displays.
It may seem odd to spot what looks for all the world like a shore bird here in Pocahontas County, but actually, these birds have long made their home here in the mountains.
They’re really every bit as much an inland bird as a beach bird, actually more so.
They prefer to forage and nest in a drier environment and are really the least “water-associated” of all the shore birds.
You can find them nesting on parking lots, golf courses, ball fields, runways, pastures, gravel-covered roofs and in mud flats.
The adaptable killdeer is one of the most successful shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere.
They have a widespread range – breeding in Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland, south through the United States to southern Mexico and the Caribbean, and are found in Costa Rica, coastal Peru and Northwestern Chile.
They are quite common across North America, with those living up north going south during the colder months.
In the southern United States, only those living in the Appalachian Mountains migrate south during the winter.
The killdeer arrives in West Virginia in the spring and leaves in the fall.
They winter from the southern half of the United States south to the northern tip of South America.
They are fairly common summer residents in every county in West Virginia and have even been known to stay the winter along the lower Ohio and Kanawha Valley areas.
Because of their nesting habits, which include playgrounds, Killdeer are often watched by schoolchildren.
I went to school in Maryland, and I remember my sixth grade class being entranced by a pair of Killdeer who chose to make their nest in our school yard, just outside the classroom window. We made a project of watching them nest and protecting and hatching their babies.
A Killdeer is about the same size as a Robin – nine-to-11 inches long.
It’s easy to identify.
On its neck it has two black bands separated and bordered by white, a white patch above the bill, and a black stripe running from eye to eye.
It also has a distinctive white eye stripe, like an eyebrow, behind each eye.
Its wings and tail are long.
In flight, the rump and the upper tail are orange.
Both genders look alike.
While many other plovers and shore birds have orange legs, Killdeer have pale, pinkish legs.
The Killdeer’s strident call, a high-pitched and loud “tee-dee” or “kill-deer,” is often repeated over and over and also makes the bird easy to recognize.
No wonder they like it here in Pocahontas County. We have not only plenty of their favorite habitat but also everything that they like to eat – in abundance.
The killdeer is a true farmer’s friend – foraging for all kinds of insects, especially beetles, snails, caterpillars and grasshoppers.
Their characteristic hunting technique involves running, stopping, waiting, bobbing their heads and then running forward again.
They will also eat spiders, crayfish, centipedes and other invertebrates, even the occasional small mammal and some seeds.
They seem brave to me, not only because they like to eat bugs, but because of the way they can sometimes seem to play “chicken” with a two-ton pickup.
Every spring for the last few years, I have enjoyed seeing them surveying a relatively unused parking lot in Marlinton, daintily and resentfully moving out of the way to allow the occasional vehicle to pass by.
They’re also brave, some might say foolhardy, in their nesting habits.
They nest in the open with little or no surrounding vegetation.
Nests can be found in the middle of a gravel road, on newly turned soil and along the borders of a country road.
And nests are nothing fancy.
A little scrape in a pile of dirt, gravel or a rocky outcropping will do for a killdeer nest, although they will sometimes decorate their nesting spot with a lining of grass or pebbles.
Females lay three to five spotted eggs, which look a lot like rocks and both the male and female will sit on the eggs for a little less than 30 days.
Since they nest in such exposed places, killdeer have to rely on their excellent talents in camouflage and deception to protect their eggs and chicks.
Killdeer are most famous for the fictitious “wing dragging” drama that they use to lure a predator away from the nest.
When an intruder approaches, the parent will feign injury – exposing its bright tail and dragging a wing as if it’s broken, or flopping around on the ground to entice the predator away.
When it is far enough away from the nest, the bird “recovers” and flies away, calling loudly.
To keep horses or cows from crushing their eggs, a brave little Killdeer will make itself look as big as it can by fluffing up its feathers and displaying its tail over its head.
They’ll then make kamikaze runs at the animal to make it change its path.
Besides the fact that they nest in such seemingly indefensible places, Killdeer are doting parents, with both parents bringing food to the babies.
But the chicks are able to find food for themselves not long after they hatch, and they can fly before they are even a month old.
Killdeer in West Virginia begin to gather in groups of several dozen on ponds and lake shores at the end of August, as they prepare to fly south in October.
The Killdeer’s habit of nesting so close to humans and human habitat has been working for them for a very long time, but it means that they are especially vulnerable to human activity.
Pesticide poisoning, lawnmowers and collisions with vehicles have taken their toll, and some bird surveys suggest that Killdeer populations may be on the decline in some western states.
Let’s hope that the brave little Killdeer can keep calling West Virginia home for many centuries to come.