Finding Killdeer Nests: Two Methods

As part of my on-going effort to become more familiar with the behavior of the birds of Eliza Howell Park, I pay special attention to their breeding habits. Last week I commented on my so-far unsuccessful attempts to locate a Wood Duck nesting cavity. Since then, Killdeer, another of the March arrivals, has made its annual appearance.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

I have had more success in locating Killdeer nests, though this is also a big challenge. Killdeer nest on the open ground, in a small depression with no nest structure. The nesting birds are so well camouflaged that they can only be seen when they move. And, like Wood Ducks, the young leave the nest immediately after hatching, so there is no feeding activity to help one locate the nest.

Killdeer nest very early in the year, before the ground plants grow. In each of the areas shown in this picture, I was able to locate a Killdeer nest, in three different years.

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I found this nest (next picture) by using the nest-hunting method I usually employ for Killdeer:

  1. paying careful attention to the area of the field where a pair of Killdeer is “hanging out” in late March/early April;
  2. watching them, from a distance, to try to find the location where one of the pair settles down on the ground, a possible nest;
  3. trying to fix that location in my mind (this is difficult because an open field provides very few markers to go by);
  4. going to the location when the birds are absent to try to get a close-up look (even when I know there probably is a nest there, it remains difficult to actually spot it).

This strategy takes a lot of time and patience, but it often works.

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Nest-finding method # 2 is not really a method at all. I refer to it as serendipity, making the discovery more or less by accident, by being in the right place at the right time.

Two years ago I was walking across the field in April with a park visitor, heading toward an area where I had been observing Killdeer. All of a sudden, a Killdeer few out from three feet in front of us. Looking down, I saw that we had almost stepped on a nest, at least 50 yards from the area I thought might be their nesting site.

After a quick picture, we left the area so that incubation could resume.

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Killdeer nest regularly in Eliza Howell, but, as far as I can determine, only one or two pair a year. They nest early and usually in the area of the park that is mowed. In some years, I am concerned that the eggs might not hatch before mowing begins.

Killdeer probably have another brood later in the nesting season, but I have not yet located a nest after April.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The pair that arrived within the last few days has already been engaged in mating activity; they are likely to nest soon.

And I have started my watching, noting that they seem to be favoring an area that has the kind of gravelly ground that Killdeer often like for their nests. I will be back, multiple times.

And, if my patient watching doesn’t confirm a nest, maybe I will discover one by method # 2?

Killdeer: A Story of Nest and Eggs

Killdeer usually return to Eliza Howell Park in early March; this year I had my first sighting on March 9. Typically, there are a few in the park from March till late Summer or early Fall.

Killdeer are plovers, a type of shorebird, but they are often found in open areas some distance from water. In EHP, they are most commonly seen in the fields within the road loop

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Killdeer are early nester. In the years that I find a nest, it is in April. On April 18 this year, while walking through the field with a companion, we saw a Killdeer run slowly away from our path. Stopping to get a better look at the bird, we watched as it did its broken-wing act. This effort to try to get us to follow it rather than continue where we were headed suggested that we were close to the nest.

I looked down in the direction we had been walking and there, three feet ahead, was the nest.

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Killdeer lay their eggs (almost always 4) in a shallow depression in the ground, where they incubate unprotected from spring rains, cold, and occasional snow. There is no structure to stand out and the egg coloring makes them well camouflaged. I am sure that I have walked right past Killdeer nests quite a number of times without knowing it.

For the size of the bird (a Killdeer is very slightly larger than an American Robin), the eggs are large, about 70% larger than those of Robins. The egg size is important. The larger eggs contain more nutrition and make possible more extensive development before hatching.

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Bird hatchlings are usually described as either “altricial” or “precocial.” Most small birds that nest in Eliza Howell are quite naked and helpless when first hatched and are totally dependent on being care for in the nest (altricial). A Killdeer is precocial, has fluffy feathers when it hatches and can walk away from the nest on the first day and start eating on its own (think precocious).

Greater development in the shell takes longer, however, and the newly hatched Killdeer is about the same “age” as a robin 12 days after hatching. Killdeer eggs are incubated 24 – 26 days and Robin eggs 11- 14 days.

The young Killdeer chicks will not be out in the ground nest helpless after hatching; once hatched, their parents can lead them to other hiding places. Until then, the eggs are at some risk from predators, from being stepped on, and, perhaps, from lawn mowers. I don’t know how long this Killdeer pair has been incubating so far, but hatch date is probably be a couple weeks away yet.