When Rush Ranch caretaker Joe Hoberg told Tom Muehleisen in July that a brood of killdeer had just hatched near his house, the photographer didn’t hesitate. Tom knows Killdeer chicks leave their nests within two days, giving him only a small window of opportunity for a photo shoot.
The following morning, with a soft, cool wind blowing across the land, Tom watched the brood through his powerful telephoto lens. When the adult killdeer sitting on the nest lifted its wings, four chicks scrambled out, ran around for a minute or two, and then came back to be folded under the lifted wings.
“It was really fun to watch how the killdeer cared for those little chicks. And yes, the adult could tuck all four of them under its wings,” said Tom.
Killdeers are medium-sized plovers with distinctive warning calls. Killdeer nests are just a scrape of dirt and rocks on the ground, where the chicks are vulnerable. To distract a predator (or a hiker or mower), the adults call out an alarm and run away from the nest to fool the intruder. If the alarm fails and the intruder gets too close to the chicks, the parent will cry out and pretend to have a broken wing.
Volunteer Ken Poerner has experienced this behavior before. This spring, he was mowing at Rush Ranch when he noticed an adult killdeer getting agitated every time he motored near the tractor shed. “I stopped and watched until I saw the bird return to its nest,” said Ken. “I left that patch of grass to be mowed another day.”
In Bay Area Birds, naturalist David Lukas says that both parents incubate four eggs that hatch in less than a month. Most parents raise several broods each summer. “If you see a bird between April and September, it’s likely a resident bird”, says Lukas. Killdeers, which were once limited to nesting on gravel riverbanks, have adapted to human-made landscapes, like golf courses, agricultural and athletic fields, parks and open spaces.
These fascinating birds are a favorite amongst Solano Land Trust staff and volunteers. Michelle Dickey, SLT Engagement Coordinator, said she loves them. “Their distinctive sound is magical and their distracting behavior to protect their babies is endearing.”
Thank you for supporting our mission to protect open spaces like Rush Ranch, which provide crucial habitat for amazing animals like these!
(Photos by Tom Muehleisen)