The best acting jobs are not always in seasonal blockbusters on the silver screen. Late spring and early summer is a great time to catch some five-star performances by casts of unknowns during the mating, breeding and nesting routines of Allentown and Lehigh Valley area critters.
One of the oddest acts belongs to the quirky killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). Technically classified as a shorebird, the killdeer is a plover that can be found throughout Pennsylvania during the summer months. However, they are migratory birds that take up seasonal residence in the south, Mexico and even Central America.
Physically, the killdeer is roughly a little less than a foot long, with a brown/black back and white belly. Two black rings form necklaces, while the rump feathers have an orange to rust color visible in fight. Additionally the face is generally brown with white above the beak. The eyes are sharp orange.
Producing up to three broods a year, this raucous yet innocuous bird has the peculiar behavior of the male building its nest in a shallow hollow or depression on the ground or gravel-top roofs. Absolutely little or no effort is put into it other than scraping behavior by the male prior to mating. The mother-to-be seemingly just locates the spot and drops off generally three to five eggs colored to mimic the earth surrounding them. Then, she and her mate take turns sitting on the “nest.” And while one is guarding over the eggs, the other is not far away, so both can go into their signature broken-wing display to protect the nest throughout the 24-28 day hatching cycle.
At the sight of an intruder, one of the killdeer lets out a distracting obnoxious cry to attract attention to itself. Then, it folds a wing earthward, displaying the rust-colored feathers and creating the illusion of a broken wing and hobbled helplessness. The intruder is enticed to follow the bird, which miraculously can travel speedily along the ground luring the intruder way from the nest. When the bird figures the nest is safe, its wing suddenly is healed and it takes off leaving a befuddled predator to hunt elsewhere.
Killdeer young look identical to the parents, but missing one of the rings around their necks. They are known as fledglings because they emerge from the egg nearly fully feathered, with eyes open. Birds that require lengthy nesting and parental feeding are called hatchlings.
The killdeer baby is a precocial bird – like ducklings and chicks – which can get up on stilt-like legs and start hunting insect food shortly after the feathers dry from hatching. The parents will remain close for about four weeks, and then the young mature enough to go their own way.
Killdeer parents put on an unusual show that’s interesting to see and serves a noble purpose. But it’s always best to leave the parents and their young undisturbed to do what’s come naturally for ages.