The killdeer and its Nesting Habits

BIRD COLUMN FOR July 25, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

Topic: The Killdeer and its Nesting Habits , Precocial and Altricial Youngsters, A Young Killdeer that Disappeared while I was Staring at it. A Tame Quail


Provided below is a copy of all the material that appeared in the newspaper column on the date above, plus extra information for the interested reader who wishes to learn more about this subject.

Here is a recent question: Dear Prof. Burtt: We have a brown bird that nested in the pebbles beside our driveway. When we approached the nest, the bird hobbled off like she was hurt and put her tail feathers up like a peacock. Her tail feathers are a lighter brown with some white. Please tell us something about this bird. —C. N., Marcellus, NY

Dear C.N: The bird is a killdeer. It is related to the sandpipers, but instead of feeding along the shore, it prefers plowed fields and pasture lands. There it eats worms, grubs and insects of various kinds.

There are two black bands across its breast. In flight, a golden-red rump is conspicuous and it has quite a long tail. It is a noisy bird and repeats its loud insistent call again and again: "kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee."

The Killdeer Is A Common Bird

The killdeer is the most common shorebird that breeds in Central New York. Shorebirds are those long legged, wading birds we see along beaches, lakeshores and muddy pools. The most familiar ones are the sandpipers that dash out into shallow water and mud flats to pick up little marine worms and other invertebrates.

The largest group are the sandpipers and the next most abundant are the plovers. The killdeer is a plover. Plovers are more compact and with a shorter neck than the sandpipers. The bill is shorter and stouter too.

Of all the shorebirds, the killdeer is one of the easiest to identify for there are two black bands across the breast as shown in the painting. In flight, a golden-red rump is conspicuous and it has quite a long tail.

CAPTION: This common shorebird, a killdeer, frequents pastures or fields rather than the seashore. Its well-camouflaged eggs are laid right on the ground with only a bit of gravel for a nest. The chicks leave the nest the day they hatch. This painting is from the Peterson field guide, "Birds of Eastern and Central North America", fifth edition ( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co. )

It is a noisy bird and repeats its loud insistent call again and again: "kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee." Both its common name and its scientific name reflect this characteristic voice. The scientific name is Charadrius vociferus where the first word is the genus and the second part, the species name. The species , vociferous, is close to the English word, vociferous which means noisy or loud.

Practically No Nest

It lays its eggs in the open on the ground. Spots with gravel, cinders or pebbles are chosen where the eggs will be almost invisible. There is no real nest. It finds a small depression on the ground or perhaps scrapes a very shallow hollow. Now and then, it puts a few pieces of grass on the spot. The eggs are laid right on the ground. They have a lot of brownish blotches and spots on a buffy background.

The eggs are very large for the size of the parent bird. For example, although the killdeer and the robin are very nearly the same size, the killdeer's egg is twice the size of a robin's egg. It only takes the robin 13 days to hatch its egg, but the killdeer egg requires 26 days! There are some good reasons for these differences.

Killdeer youngsters are “precocial”

Young birds fall into two categories, depending upon how well developed they are when they hatch.

Altricial birds hatch in a helpless condition , most with their eyes closed, are unable to leave the nest and are wholly dependent upon their parents for food and care. Most are born naked . Examples are robins, jays and house sparrows.

The herons, hawks and owls are born with a covering of down, but they are still helpless.

Precocial birds hatch in the opposite condition in that they can move about soon after hatching and drying. They hatch with their eyes open, are covered with down and only partly or not at all dependent upon their parents for food and care. They leave the nest within a few hours of hatching.

Young killdeers are precocial. This does require something different. The young killdeers must be quite well developed by hatching time if they are to walk immediately. The large yolk mentioned above, provides the extra food they need while developing in the egg. A large egg and a longer period of incubation are required for precocial birds.

Generally, the chicks of helpless altircial birds hatch in sturdy nests in trees where they are protected from animals that walk about on the ground. Precocial chicks like the killdeer leave the nest immediately which gives them some protection from raccoons, weasels or other mammals that would devour helpless chicks in a nest on the ground.

Their legs are well developed, but their wings are very tiny and unfeathered. They cannot fly at this stage. The parents guard them, but do not feed them. The youngsters must pick up their own food.

Well camouflaged

I tried to catch a young one some years ago. He ran from me and then stopped suddenly. I moved in to drop my cap over him. However, I could not find him although he had stopped on an open patch of dirt right before my eyes. I stared at the spot and studied it for some time before I could make out his outline. When a young killdeer "freezes," its camouflage is almost perfect!

Broken Wing Act

When the incubating killdeer is disturbed on the nest, it puts up quite an act. If the intruder is a predatory animal such as a dog, a fox or a man that might want the egg, it flutters away from the nest with one wing hanging loosely as if it was injured.

Predators are strongly attracted to an injured bird (they are easier to catch I suppose). The killdeer moves a short distance away from the nest; beats one wing on the ground and the other will be twisted up over its back. This behavior together with its loud calling is enough to distract the predator away from the nest site.

Different tactics are used with a horse, a cow or deer. Such animals have no interest in the eggs, but they still might destroy them by walking over the nest.
In these cases, the killdeer seldom leaves the nest until the animal is just about ready to step on it. At that point, the killdeer flies at the face of the intruder and frequently strikes it on the muzzle. This usually causes the animal to retreat and the nest is saved.

The Little Quail

While on the subject of baby birds, I remembered a summer at Cape Cod many years ago. There, a little quail was the source of much delight to visitors to the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary.

This particular bird had been taken in by a local resident. Because of its small size and striped appearance, it was immediately named, "Bumblebee."

Bumblebee frequently fed at the family table where its cage was taken at mealtime. Later, when given a little more freedom, the bird formed the habit of sleeping on a blanket at the foot of its mistress's bed. The bird formed such an attachment for the woman, that it attempted to drive away friends who came to visit. It even attacked her husband.

In desperation, she checked with the Wellfleet sanctuary. They had some quail there in a semi-wild state in a fairly well protected area. Bumblebee was liberated there.

It adapted itself to life in the sanctuary and learned to feed for itself. Generally, it was seen by itself and was not quite accepted by the other quail there.

The little quail seemed to prefer human friends. On Sundays when visitors were there in large numbers, the quail got lots of attention. A visitor was often startled to see the little bobwhite pop out of the bushes into the path, tame and unafraid. It would walk up to people, "peep" and allow them to touch or pet it.

Young birds usually become attached to the first living creature they see. This is normally the parent. When a young bird is raised by humans, it becomes attached to them and does not know that this is a dangerous thing to do. It may later approach a human or some other moving animal and be killed. It probably will not recognize others of its own kind and so will never mate.

If you find a young bird, it is best to leave it alone. The parents are probably nearby and will take care of it. In addition, it is protected by law and it was illegal for the lady to have taken it into captivity.

Attracting Birds with Bird Baths and Dripping Water

BIRD COLUMN FOR July 11, 2004

By Benjamin P. Burtt

Topic: Attracting birds with bird baths and dripping water

One of the best ways to attract birds through the warmer weather is to provide a supply of water. Whether the birds will use a bath or not will depend on how the bath is constructed and where it is placed.

A bird bath should be a sort of shallow puddle and not a deep pool. It should be no more than a half inch deep at the edges, and slope gradually to the center to a maximum depth of about 2 inches.

If the depth of the water at the edge is greater than one-half inch, don't buy it. Birds must be able to wade in much as we might at a shallow, sandy beach.

To accommodate more than one bird at the same time, the diameter should be 20 to 24 inches.

Placement of the bath

Whether the bath is on a pedestal or on the ground, it should be roughly 10 to 12 feet from the shelter of nearby shrubbery. Birds are timid about venturing too far into the open. If the bath is too close to the bushes they can be more easily caught by a cat hidden there. So, 10 to 12 feet is about right.

Need to see water

The reflections from the surface of the water are more conspicuous to the birds if the bottom of the bath is a dark color. A disadvantage of many commercial concrete models is their nearly white color. Tests have shown that water in a dark container is used more often. If the bird does not see the water, it will not use it.

A dark, waterproof paint (deck and floor paint) can be applied to the concrete to make the water more conspicuous and thus increase its ability to bring in the birds.

Not all birdbaths that are available in stores are suitable. Recently, I visited a garden center for plants and inside their large greenhouse where plants were displayed, there were also many ornaments and bird baths and pools. However, of the dozen baths there, all had steep sides and sloped abruptly to the center.

While birds could perch on the edge and reach down to drink, the water was too deep for them to wade in to bathe.

The baths were more of an ornament than a place where birds could easily drink and bathe.

Do be sure that the bath is shallow at the edges. If you already have one that has steep sides, you can place some thin pieces of slate in the water around the edge. The birds can wade in until they get to the proper depth for their size.

A few commercial baths made of concrete on a heavy stand are quite good and now there are some made of plastic that do not require such a substantial support.

Making your own birdbath

A birdbath can be made with materials you have around your home. You can mount, a shallow, metal trash can lid on a piece of tile pipe. A rock or other weight suspended from the handle and hanging down inside the pipe will hold the lid in place. Once this has been painted to disguise the materials, It looks quite nice.

A bath does not need to be on a pedestal. Most birds are accustomed to finding water in a puddle on the ground. Thus an excellent homemade bath can be constructed from concrete by digging a shallow hole in the ground and using the hole for a mold. Follow the specifications for the size given above. Be sure the cement is at least 1-1/2 inches thick.

If you do not wish to use concrete, the hole can be lined with a piece of thin plastic and weighted down with stones or dirt along the edges. The water presses the plastic against the dirt beneath it. This, together with the wrinkles in the plastic gives a pretty good footing for the bathers. A thin plastic is preferred to heavy material that does not wrinkle. The latter can be quite slippery and birds may be more timid about venturing onto it.

Motion and noise help
Birds are strongly attracted by the motion and noise of dripping water. Let water fall into the bath at about one drop per second and you will attract flycatchers, warblers, thrushes and many birds that otherwise will not come to a bath or to a feeder.

Plastic bucket drip device

The simplest arrangement for dripping water into the bath is illustrated here in Figure 1.

(NOTE: there are six pictures and it may take up to 3 minutes to load them all if you are using a phone modem)

This is a plastic pail with a tiny hole in it. It is suspended about two feet above the bath or pool and water drips from a hole punched in the side of the pail near the bottom.

To make a hole of the proper size, poke a common pin into the side of the plastic pail about one half inch above the bottom. Note: the hole should not be put in the bottom of the pail since it will soon become plugged by bits of dirt.

If the water should drip too fast, leave the pin in the hole with the head on the inside. If it goes too slowly, then you may want to enlarge the hole with a very tiny nail.

If it is not convenient to put the pail directly above the bath or if you do not like the appearance of it there, put if off to the side as shown in Figure 2.

In this case you will need some soft, one-quarter inch tubing and hook up a siphon to bring water over to drop from the end of the tubing into the bath. In the end of the tubing, insert a tiny plastic valve so that you can adjust the flow to about one drop per second.

The little valve costs $3.00 and is available in any store or hardware that sells parts for small gas engines. It is called an "in-line fuel shut off valve". It would normally be used with gas line tubing, but soft vinyl or rubber tubing is better for the drip device. ( the valve I found was a Sten 120-212 or a Briggs and Stratton part No. 494768). One of the tapered ends of the valve is inserted into the tubing. The inserted tip is called a barb fitting because its ribbed surface keeps the tubing from slipping off.

Once you get the siphon started and the water flowing, then you can easily adjust the valve handle to get the correct drip rate. Keep the pail covered so that dirt does not get into the water for that will plug up the valve eventually.

Buying a ready-made “dripper”

If you do not wish to make a "dripper" yourself, a ready-made one that attaches to an outside faucet is available in most stores that sell supplies for attracting and feeding birds. These consist of a kit with all the necessary parts partially assembled.

Each of the following stores in Central New York carries one or more models: In Auburn, the Bird House on State Route 326, 315-252-1850,
In Syracuse, Lee's Feed Store in Syracuse , Milburn Dr. on the south side at 469-1481.
In Cicero, Barone Gardens on South Bay Rd. near Thompson Rd, at 699-2429.
In Fayetteville, Wild Birds Unlimited on E. Genesee St., at 637-0710.
At Moyers Corners about 4 miles east of Baldwinsville, Tweeter Feeders will have some in soon. Call 622-4737.

As shown here in Figure 3, the "dripper" consists of a metal "Y" that you attach to the garden hose faucet outside your house. This "Y" is normally used so that two garden hoses can be attached to the same faucet. There is a valve in each arm so that one or both can be turned on.

Instead of attaching a garden hose to the other side, you screw on a cap on that has a nipple to which a piece of 1/4 inch diameter plastic tubing is attached. The other end of the miniature hose is fastened just above the bird bath so that water will drip into the bath. The bird bath can be placed on the ground or on a pedestal.

The water can merely drip from the end of the tubing into the bath. The tubing can be supported by a tree branch, or from the top of a stake near the bath.

Instead of suspending the end of the tubing over the water, some units include a copper tube mounted on a small crockery pedestal that sits in the bird bath as shown at the bottom right of Figure 3 and just below in Figure 4 The piece of copper tubing goes up, over and down, dripping water into the bath.

Some other drip units clamp onto the edge of the bird bath and the water drips from the tip of a metal tube that hangs over the bath.

With this arrangement, the regular faucet on the outside of the house is turned on. The little valve is opened just a bit to allow water to drip from the end of the tubing into the bird bath. The other valve on the "Y" is turned off unless you wish to connect the garden hose.

Thus, the faucet is available for all its customary uses, but the little valve on one arm of the "Y", controls the flow of the dripping unit. In some kits you also have a little valve in the tubing to adjust the flow. One drop per second is about right.

Once it is dripping at the proper rate, you do not need to readjust it unless the water pressure changes drastically.

These kits with all the parts give you the best and most convenient arrangement I have seen for attracting birds to water in summer. The basic unit is $40 to $50. Some models allow you to choose whether to operate it as a tiny fountain or as a dripper.

It is nice to have a ready-made device, but if you like to make things and have access to a good hardware store, you can find these parts and put together your own "dripper".

There are also bird baths made of plastic that have a built in dripper that can be attached to a faucet in much the same way.

Solar powered fountain.

A very unique unit was invented by Chris Gates of Chittenango a few years ago. It consists of a floating lily pad about 8 inches in diameter on which sits a little green frog.

Photo cells in the lily pad operate a little pump under the frog. Water is drawn from under the lily pad and is squirted vertically out of two jets on opposite sides. The two little fountains goes over a foot in the air and drop back to splash in the pool.

Below is a photograph of one operating in my back yard. For fun it could be put in a fish pond or even allowed to float about in a swimming pool.

It is only available on the web or by mail. It costs $89 and is a lot of fun.

If you wish to buy one on line, go to the web site

and follow the directions to fill out the order blank. If you do not have access to the web, you can order one by mail.

Write to
Pratique, Inc, 1325 Route 173, Chittenango, NY 13037. The total cost will be the sum of the following:
89.00 Solar Power Fountain
7.34 Sales tax for NY residents
6.00 shipping and handling

Total = $102.34

Please include your name, address, phone number and email address if you have one.