Killdeer is the familiar plover across North America. The 
species is strictly terrestrial, commonly nesting in open, 
human-disturbed habitats. (photo by Jim Frazier)
Parking lot plovers

(published 9-30-19)

As a bird, I could think of worse places to be born, but not many.

Imagine starting life in a parking lot, at the peak of summer. You and your two siblings take your first steps on a broiling sea of asphalt with bright yellow lines. You can’t fly, and the lot’s 5-inch curbs are insurmountable even with your long toothpick legs. Vehicles are a constant threat, along with gulls, hawks and assorted mammals looking for an easy snack.

Someday, if you survive, you might ask mama why she chose to lay her eggs on a white gravel traffic island, just feet away from passing cars, trucks and pedestrians. She couldn’t help it, of course. The killdeer is hard-wired to nest on open ground, sometimes in dangerous places.

The scene was Cantigny Park, where I work, so daily developments were easy to follow. Chicago had its plovers and we had ours.
Killdeer eggs are well disguised, a
critical adaptation for ground-
nesting birds.

In case you missed it, a piping plover pair made history at Montrose Beach this summer. For the first time since 1955, the endangered species nested successfully in Chicago, fledging two chicks. Their story involved plenty of drama, including a cancelled music festival on the birds’ behalf. Parents “Monty” and “Rose” became celebrities, nonbirder citizens learned about piping plovers and clever t-shirts were sold. It was national news!

Our plover story in Wheaton didn’t warrant media coverage but it was still fascinating to watch.

Killdeer is the common plover species across North America, and the one most often seen away from water. You know this bird: robin-sized, bright white in the front with two black breast bands. The sexes look the same.

As with blue jays and wrens, you’ll probably know when a killdeer is around. It’s the noisy plover, calling its name loud and often from the air and on the ground—a piercing kidee, kidee, kidee.   

Killdeer frequent beaches and mudflats like other shorebirds, but also prosper in open spaces such as farms, athletic fields, golf courses and, yes, parking lots. You’ll never see one in a tree, or at your backyard feeder. (Call me if you do!)

The killdeer’s broken-wing display, a distraction tactic,
exposes orangish feathers that are also noticeable
 in flight. 
The species is well known for its broken-wing display, a tactic employed to distract potential predators, drawing them away from eggs and offspring. Some other ground-nesting birds do this, too.

We didn’t assign catchy names to the killdeer pair at Cantigny, nor did we fence off their nest area. The horticulture team postponed planting activity in the traffic island but otherwise let nature take its course. These birds are naturally resilient.

Four speckled eggs were almost invisible from just a few feet away, hidden in plain sight on a simple scrape (hardly a nest at all). Throughout a July heat wave, the incubating adult killdeer took turns shading for the eggs. Instead of hunkering down, the birds stood over them day after day under a blistering sun.

I didn’t witness it, but the killdeer parents probably used a nearby water source to wet their belly feathers. Transferring moisture to the eggs before shading them provides cooling for the developing embryos through evaporative heat loss.  

Such extraordinary parental dedication paid off when all four eggs hatched after about 21 days. Unfortunately, one chick died on the nest—tragic, but not uncommon. In Chicago, only two of the three piping plover chicks survived.
A newly born killdeer chick is mobile within hours of
birth. It can fly in about 30 days.

Killdeer babies are precocial, meaning they are born with open eyes and downy feathers. They leave the nest within hours of birth and learn to feed themselves by following their parents’ example.

Like their famous cousins on Montrose Beach, the Cantigny kids were undeniably cute. They could really scoot, too, which I found out on photo day. A few weeks later they were airborne, gliding around easily on long, pointy wings.

In mid-September, I spotted the three grown-up chicks loitering in their home parking lot. They also graze on the second fairway of Cantigny Golf’s Lakeside course, a short hop over the fence from the park. I’m pretty sure the parents are still in the neighborhood, too. All seem to have everything they need on these constructed landscapes.

But not for much longer. Food is a powerful motivator. To maintain their insect-based diet, killdeer head south, spending winter in the southern United States and Mexico. They’ll return in March, an early spring marker just as sure as the red-winged blackbirds that precede them by a few weeks.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.