Saturday, August 11, 2018

Empty Nesters

     "BEEP! BEEP!"
     It's a sound that still brings a smile to my face. 
     Let me explain. In my feckless youth I was the proud owner of a Plymouth Road Runner. They were called muscle cars. Big engine, stick shift, mag wheels. Fire engine red with a horn that went "BEEP! BEEP!" 

She used to be mine...the car, not the girl!

     The horn was a nod to a popular Saturday morning TV cartoon show. It featured the Road Runner bird outsmarting his arch nemesis, Wile E. Coyote. Typically, Road Runner would lead old Wile E. off a cliff or beneath an avalanche. Then he would let out a chortling "BEEP! BEEP!" and speed off in a cloud of dust. To those at a certain stage of maturity, it had its appeal.

Web images

     I've never seen a real roadrunner. They're a western bird of desert and sage brush. That's not a habitat where I spend a lot of time. But we do have killdeers in the Northeast and the two species have become connected in my mind. Now before I get taken to the woodshed by knowledgable birders, let's set things straight. The two birds are not related. The Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) at 20-24" is a fairly large member of the Cuckoo family. (Interesting fact: the Roadrunner is one of the few animals that will attack, kill and eat rattlesnakes.) Killdeers (Charadrius vociferus) are smaller (9-11") and in the Plover family, a group of wading birds more often associated with the beach than the desert. Killdeers are widely distributed in open, farming country and they can often be seen running on the ground in short, quick bursts. That's probably what connects them to the Road Runner in my imagination.

Greater Roadrunner - web image

Killdeer - web image

     I have a hay shed with a graveled area in front of it. Back in June I was pulling wagons out of the shed in anticipation of baling.
From the tractor seat something on the ground caught my eye. It was a bird. A closer look revealed a killdeer, motionless and nearly invisible. When I got down to take a look she scooted off a short distance and flopped around like her wing was broken. This was a classic distraction display. I knew there was something the bird didn't want me to find. After a careful search I found four eggs blending perfectly with the gravel surface.

     She didn't need a building permit for this nest because there was nothing to build. Maybe a couple of small stones had been moved and a little hollow made. That was it. Her speckled eggs were right out in the open, right where I parked wagons and customers came with trucks and trailers to get hay. A dangerous place. No one was going to sell life insurance to these unhatched chicks.
     Mama bird's instincts had evolved over the millions of years before the internal combustion engine and big tires arrived on the scene. She needed a little help. The best I could do was to put a couple of metal posts on either side of her nest and string bright orange surveyors tape between them.

     Miraculously, it worked. Flagged and visible was avoidable. As June unfolded I witnessed both male and female parents tending the eggs. On scorching hot afternoons the birds would hover over them providing shade. When it cooled in the evening they settled down to warm them. One day I watched with trepidation as a fisher and her kit ran nearby. Fortunately, seeking the cover of nearby woods was the only thing on their mind. They never saw the killdeer or her eggs.
     But as the month wore on I began to despair. There was the killdeer, there were the eggs. But nothing seemed to be happening. Perhaps there was too much distraction. Maybe the incubation process had been disrupted. 
     Eventually it was time to celebrate the Fourth of July. Of course, for me celebrate meant baling hay all day. Then, when I brought the first wagon up to the shed, I could see they were gone. No birds, no eggs. I wasn't sure if this meant success or disaster for the killdeers. Later Gwenne filled me in. She had seen the mama trailed by scurrying little balls of fluff earlier in the day. They had done it! From four mottled shells lying in the dirt to hatchlings up and running. No wonder they call the 4th Independence Day. 

By the way...

     - Ornithologists classify killdeer chicks as precocial (as opposed to altricial), meaning they can move and feed independently shortly after hatching. This would seem to be a necessity in ground nesting species as they are so vulnerable. 

Web image

     - I've had fun watching them grow since July. They dart around my barnyard like frenzied commuters trying to catch a bus. Approaching six weeks old I can no longer tell the chicks from the adults. Not sure if they all survived but there is certainly quite a few killdeer around here.

     - When we think of ecosystems, places like the shore, grasslands or deciduous forest come to mind. But in long developed areas pure natural ecosystems are rare. Still, farmed landscapes with their open fields, hedgerows and small woodlots seem to make great habitat for a variety of animals. A dusk or dawn tour of Washington County backroads will almost always reward you with wildlife sightings.

     Here's a link to It's a Beautiful Day singing White Bird. We could all use a little more freedom.

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