Our Turn At This Earth: Seeing Is Caring

Sep 24, 2020

“I learned a new shorebird today!” my partner, Al, announced.

“What kind?” I asked.

“Killdeer.”

“You’re kidding? Killdeers aren’t shorebirds.”

Al unfolded his pocket bird guide and promptly proved me wrong. He spotted the killdeer on a walk around our town lake. We live not far from the ocean and often see herons, cormorants, egrets, and a variety of ducks. We even see the occasional bald eagle or osprey, but this was Al’s first killdeer.

If I’d seen one I’d seen one thousand. Killdeers were common on my family’s Kansas farm, where they nested on dry ground with no shore or water in sight. Their name derives from their call, except they accent the second syllable, kill-DEER. Members of the plover family, killdeers are about the size of pigeons, but much taller, with longer legs. Their brown backs and wings keep them well-camouflaged even on bare ground.

Yet they often give themselves away unnecessarily. When I was a kid, they would dash out in front of me as I crossed a pasture or field, then pretend to be injured. Wings cocked and dragging, they would lay it on thick, running a few feet then collapsing to the ground, their distress calls plaintive and heart-rending. Miraculously, they would always stay just far enough ahead of me to evade rescue. Meanwhile, back where the chase began, brown-speckled eggs would lie undisturbed in a shallow depression, or downy hatchlings would scurry about, searching for food

Inspired by Al’s interest in the bird, I now know that they leave the nest as soon as their feathers dry. They can do this because they are precocial, meaning they hatch with feathers, as cute as farmyard chicks, not naked and pitiful looking like many other, altricial, birds.

On our next lake visit, we spotted the bird on the shoreline. Staring at it through Al’s binoculars, I felt I was seeing a killdeer for the first time too. With bold black stripes on its neck and face, the bird looked vivid and dignified.

Fleeing across the plowed fields of my childhood, killdeers had seemed drab, and putting on their show, they had struck me as more comical than dignified. But when I drove tractors as an adult, and I would see killdeers on the ground ahead, desperately trying to divert me, it saddened me to think how hopeless their earnest efforts were. They seemed tragic, not comical. I wasn’t going to turn the ten tons of steel I was driving and take off after them the way I had done as a child. Nor was I going to stop and search the ground in order to avoid destroying a nest. No time for that in my father’s practical farming playbook, and I was determined to measure up to his expectations. 

I tried not to think of all the bird life we must have been destroying. Perhaps that’s why the killdeer Al spotted snagged in my imagination and grew there. It wasn’t just curiosity but a sense of guilt that led me to learn more about a bird I’d always taken for granted.

Given that most grassland birds are ground nesters, I’m not surprised that farming has taken a tremendous toll on their populations. Overall, these species have declined more than 40 percent since 1966. Killdeers are close to that average, at a decline of 47 percent. Other grassland species, such as the Eastern meadowlark and the grasshopper sparrow, have fared worse, at 89 and 72 percent respectively.

Plowing is only partly to blame. One 2013 study found that pesticides kill four times more birds than even the loss of habitat does. Different farming methods, with less ground disturbance and less invasive pest control, could make a big difference. But first we have to care.

They say that seeing is believing. Seeing, this experience has taught me – really seeing, is also caring.