The Poor Deer

Farming is a fascinating enterprise. We need food to survive, and as omnivores our food pallet is fairly extensive. If it’s not poisonous, make it a meal. Farming allows us to be selective in what we choose to consume. Farming also allows us to limit our footprint… though with over seven billion of us, the footprint has gotten enormous. Imagine if we were over seven billion hunter gatherers instead.

I’ve written here on a couple occasions of experiences at the research farm. Killing weeds, running out of fuel, making crosses… that sort of thing. I’ve also mentioned some of the wildlife we share the land with at the farm. Some are pests, some are co-habitants with little interaction in our affairs, and some are quite beneficial. The Red-tailed Hawk takes voles and field mice, foxes take some of the same and rabbits as well. Lady beetles eat all sorts of other insect’s eggs – and for a soybean scientist, their appetite for soybean aphids is very welcome. Barn swallows are cool, while working the soil in preparation for planting you might be escorted by dozens of them swooping all around gathering insects on the wing. Another insectivores bird on our landscape is the Killdeer.

Killdeer have the unfortunate habit of building their nest right on the ground – out in the open in a large field where a predator’s approach can be detected. And when a predator (or a farmer) does approach, the Killdeer goes into a very spirited decoy display at some distance from the nest. At first she’ll merely call and race back and forth to attract the intruder away. Failing on this first attempt she will up the ante and feign a broken wing. Her calls and fluttering increase in intensity as the threat grows closer to her nest. Indeed, if you want to find her nest, you engage in the child’s game of Hot and Cold. If she calms down you are getting cold, if she gets progressively more agitated, you’re getting hot.

About a dozen years ago we found a Killdeer nest in a field at the research farm. We left it alone and going back several weeks later found the nest empty… hoping all went well and a few new Killdeer were off on their own.

'07 Killdeer nest in plot

Four eggs, nest lined with corn stover from previous year’s crop.  Perhaps an ancestor to this year’s bird?

The latest Killdeer encounter didn’t end so happily. I was working ground ahead of planting, the Barn swallows were swooping, the tractor roaring along. The shrill call of a Killdeer is no match for tractor noise… that is, until she is really agitated. There a few meters in front of me the poor gal is absolutely flopping and screaming as though she’d been shot. At the very last second, she flew out of harm’s way to save her own skin. I didn’t see a nest. If one were there, the field cultivator would have destroyed it. The portion of the field where this occurred was perhaps 200 meters from where we spared the nest a dozen years back. This year’s female might be directly descended from birds at that nest. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

While pulling up the photo of the nest we spared I noticed I’d dated it. It was taken on the 20th of June. Perhaps our current resident will have another chance yet this season.

For more detail on Killdeer, and their nesting habits, see:


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