Some people wait for the robins, some for the red winged blackbirds, some for the first turkey vultures wheeling about in the sky. I know it is spring when the first killdeer shows up in my field. You can’t miss the killdeers. They are about as noisy as they come. Even their latin name, charadrius vociferus, means noisy yellowish bird. Their cries sound like thin metal ringing off sharper metal as they make it exceedingly clear just who they are. “Killdeer, Killdeer, Killdeer,” they shout over and over just in case anyone is slow in picking up the message. You know they are here the minute they arrive because they wing around making a great fuss about everything they see. Not only do they scold us for letting the neighbourhood go to pot while they were away wintering in Mexico, they complain about the crows presuming to strut about their territory and ragged, chewed down state of state of last year’s dead grass which is supposed to provide cover for them.
Killdeers are the only bird I know that flies about clamorously during the day and then stays awake at night to argue with its neighbours. How often have I woken up to a great commotion among the kildeers shrieking at one another at two in the morning. You’d think nothing less than an invading velocaraptor would cause such an uproar, yet its just a bunch of killdeers having a spat. Or perhaps a budget meeting killdeer style.
I’ve always been fond of the killdeers. Easy to hear, hard to see. They’re listed as a shore bird, a medium sized plover that ought to be splashing about in the shallows in search of whatever shore birds eat. Instead, my killdeers frequent the most drought stricken fields and nest in the driest of gravel with no water in sight. Their own housekeeping is scant. They hardly bother with a nest; just find a convenient hollow and wriggle their butts into it. They lay speckled eggs that merge with surroundings and the brown and white camouflage of the bird itself makes it blend so well you could almost step on one before noticing it was there. Newly hatched babies don’t get to laze about this sketchy home. They arrive with long gangly legs and have to take to the field right away, probably expected to scrounge their own dinners.
As a child, I became quite expert at finding the almost invisible nests and chicks due mother killdeer’s somewhat backfiring defense strategy. When I got anywhere near her eggs or babies, she would plunge to the ground in front of me, fling herself on her side and flap frantically about as though disabled by broken wings. All the while, of course, screeching at the top of her lungs. If I were a fox, I might fall for this seeming easy snack. Precocious little me figured out reverse psychology and moved carefully in the opposite direction. Sure enough there would be the speckled eggs nestled in their little dip or the killdeer chicks instinctively frozen into tiny stripped fluff balls hiding in the grass.
So another season has begun. Robins and blackbirds may trill and warble but the killdeers will pierce our ears with no uncertain news that they are the ones now in possession of the pasture and the gravel cuts. Noisy, undisputed birdie bosses.
Until the cows get here.