Thursday, July 20, 2017

Life and Death on the Prairies

Faking a broken wing

By Becky Swearingen, MN
 I love the prairies, as anyone who follows my adventures knows. Part of the mystery is that nature is not always pretty and not always kind.

I had been watching a Killdeer nest at Talbot Conservation Area for several weeks, alerted to its presence by the adult's broken wing displays. When you get too close, the adult leads you away by hopping along, dragging a wing in a pitiful fashion, until you are some distance away from the nest. It usually will flash its bright tail feathers to be sure you are following, then may fly rapidly away, looking over its shoulder and laughing.
Changing of the guard, shading the nest in left foreground
I was anxious to follow the hatching of the eggs and watch the little Killdeer skitter around looking for food. I looked and looked for the nest and finally found it in plain sight. As usual, the parents had just scraped out a little area in the gravel by the parking lot and laid the eggs in it. The parents were vigilant about guarding the nest. Here they are switching off duties, which, because of the heat actually involved shading them more than sitting on them.
Parent shading the three eggs
I was excited when a friend texted me one morning that he was at Talbot and the eggs had hatched. He was watching two of the chicks as they ran around exploring and feeding. I arrived and there they were – two Killdeer chicks with their parents.
Find the chick
But where was the third chick? When I finally located it, I thought it was strange that it was separated from its parents and siblings. It would walk a little bit and then lie down in the grass.


As I was watching it I was sitting in my car and my friend was standing next to the car. The chick then did the oddest thing. It ran very purposefully toward my car and got under a tire and lay down.
A "tire-d" little chick
Looking for shade, shelter or just suicidal?  I knew that wasn’t the safest location for it, so I got out of my car and gently picked it up to move it back into the grass and closer to its parents.  I had noticed that both the parents and the two other chicks had disappeared. The parents had taken them into the taller grass. I set the chick down in the grass closer to where I had seen the parents, expecting them to return at any moment to retrieve the baby.

Killdeer parents are very attentive. We waited for several minutes and the parents never returned. I decided to go check on the chick and when I did, I discovered it was dead. I think the parents had determined that this little one was struggling and abandoned it to focus their energies on the two healthier chicks. This one appeared to be smaller and less energetic than the two other chicks.

As I left this area, I stopped by a second Killdeer nest I knew of. That mother had been sitting on three eggs just a few days previously. When I got to her next, I noticed that she was now down to two eggs. Life on the prairies seems so serene, but it is a daily struggle for the animals who inhabit it.

On a happier note, after I had driven around the Lockwood area for a while I decided to stop by Talbot on the way home to check on the Killdeer family. As I mentioned, they last time I saw them the parents had moved them into the taller grass, so I wasn’t sure I would be able to see them. I was so happy when I found them out in the open by the water with the parents. The two surviving chicks were busy exploring their new world.
Mother was close by supervising them. Life moves on. I hope for the best for these two little ones.
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Editor's note
 Killdeer chicks are precocial, meaning that they exit the egg with eyes open and their track shoes on.  For more on how this happens and how egg in a nest laid days apart all hatch the same day, see this  Birdwatching.com article.

1 comment:

  1. Nice read and very informative. Thanks for taking the time to share.

    ReplyDelete