My wife and I were picking strawberries on a farm near Lizella in Bibb County last weekend when I noticed a brownish, dove-sized bird struggling between the rows of strawberry plants. It seemed barely able to walk, let alone fly.
I knew immediately that it was a killdeer — and that its pitiful struggles from an apparent broken wing were a ruse. Nesting adult killdeer put on this fake display when they believe their eggs or babies are threatened by predators.
Many other birds also feign a broken-wing to lure away predators, but the killdeer probably deserves an Oscar for its acting.
When a predator, such as a fox, approaches a killdeer’s egg-filled nest or its babies, the bird starts acting as if it is in great distress with a broken wing. The fox thinks it has an easy meal and pursues the “injured” bird. But somehow, the killdeer stays one step ahead of its attacker. The predator is lured farther and farther away from the nest and young.
When the killdeer perceives the danger has passed, its broken wing suddenly heals, and it flies away, calling a piercing “kill-dee” that sounds like a jeer. When the killdeer that we encountered last weekend realized that we posed no danger, it went back to its egg-laden nest, which was nothing more than a shallow depression in the bare soil of a strawberry bed.
The killdeer’s preference for nesting in open areas — fields, golf courses, abandoned industrial sites, parking lots, gravel driveways, roadsides — has allowed it to thrive near humans all over Georgia. Despite being in the open, a killdeer’s nest and speckled eggs blend in amazingly well with their surroundings. In addition, the adult killdeer’s bold, black chest stripes break up its profile and make it less noticeable to predators.
Baby killdeer hatch with their eyes open; their downy feathers dry quickly, and within minutes they can follow their parents and search for food on the ground. Though they must rely on parental protection for a few weeks, they are a lot closer to independence than most baby birds.
Even though killdeer are widespread in Georgia during the nesting season and may nest in the open almost anywhere, even strawberry fields, they are essentially a species of plover, a type of shorebird. Come winter, they will prefer to be around water.
IN THE SKY: The moon, now in last quarter, rises just after midnight and sets around midday, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer. Mercury is very low in the west just after dark. Venus is low in the west just after dark and sets about an hour later. Saturn is high in the east just after dark. Jupiter and Mars are too close to the sun for easy observation.