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Fearless Killdeer Chicks

Dear Bird Folks,

This time of year I like to do my grocery shopping late at night to avoid the crowds. Every time I walk out of the Stop & Shop in Orleans, I hear something in the dark calling “look here, look here.” Could it be a bird? If so, what kind and why is it calling at night?

Tracy, Brewster


Let’s see Tracy,

Something in the dark, late at night, calling “look here.” Hmmm, sounds like a flasher. Orleans’ flashers rarely stay out late, as most of them have trouble driving after dark. I think I know what it is and it’s not saying “look here,” it is saying “kill deer.” Now before you think something in the dark yelling “kill deer” is even creepier than a flasher, relax. What you are hearing is a bird calling its name. The bird is a killdeer and it is named after its call that sounds like “kill deer” or in some cases “look here.”

A killdeer is a plover, but instead of nesting on the beach, tying up traffic, this plover nests near people and likes it. Much larger than those wonderful little piping plovers, the killdeer can easily be identified by its two double breast bands. Killdeer also make their very distinctive call, calling “killdeer, killdeer” as they fly around their breeding grounds. And yes, killdeer seem to be out yelling their name day or night.

Why would a killdeer be nesting in a shopping center, you ask? Killdeer are one of the few birds that have adapted to the constant expansion of humans. Many of our flat-roofed buildings are covered with pebbles, just the habitat killdeer like for nesting. By nesting on the roof, killdeer not only have the habitat they prefer, but they are also safe from raccoons, foxes, snakes and a host of other predators. The roof is not perfect, however, there is the heat, tar and flooding rain. And if a killdeer chooses to nest on the Orleans Stop and Shop, there are the gulls. That roof is covered with hungry gulls, but somehow the killdeer eggs and chicks manage to avoid the gulls year after year.

If you think avoiding gulls is a minor miracle, check this out. Unlike songbirds that are born blind and totally dependent on their parents, killdeer chicks hatch out ready to go. Shortly after they crawl out of their shells, young killdeer chicks are running around, looking for food. The adults don’t bring the baby birds any food, the chicks have to find their own food from day one. Here is the amazing part. Chicks that are hatched on a rooftop have no source of food. Their parents won’t bring them any and they are too young to fly for food. So what do the little birds do? It was first thought that the birds simply called the nearby Papa Gino’s and had food delivered, but scientists have recently disproved that theory. It now appears that the tiny, fluffy, newly hatched chicks walk to the edge of the roof and jump. That’s right, they jump.

To me that is amazing. That Stop & Shop roof must be at least 20 feet high and totally surrounded by asphalt. Yet somehow those tiny, flightless young killdeer make a safe landing. Once on the ground the chicks are met by their parents who immediately take them to find food or to an orthopedic surgeon.

Next time you go shopping, Tracy, and hear that loud call, look up, you’ll probably see the adult killdeer circling high over head. However, don’t be looking up while you are walking or you too could end up taking a trip to the orthopedic surgeon.