Killdeer Lurings


Near my home lies an abandoned tract of farmland. When I moved to the area, the acreage still produced crops, but anyone who passed could see this operation would not last forever. Surrounding all sides of the land were marks of modern urban expansion. A stone’s throw to the north runs a major highway; on the west and south, a busy, growing city artery; to the east, the germination of new commercial developments. The entire plot will one day become a network of restaurants, banks, hospitals, and chain stores. A system of roads, sidewalks, and bike paths already mark the future layout, though the guts of the farm still sit unbuildinged.

This web for pedestrian and pedaling traffic was a boon for nearby residents. Suddenly, a one-and-two-third-mile loop produced a superb spot for exercise. Fantastic fodder for adding and multiplying fractions while running! For a few years, the landowner continued to produce soybeans. A couple of years ago, the seeds never went into the ground and the green rows failed to appear. Business development slowed, I can only assume, during the Covid pandemic. This combination produced something incredible in the midst of impending concrete.

Reclamation is a common fantasy or science-fiction trope. When the cities of human civilization fall in the distant future, Mother Nature invariably begins to recover what was hers long before humans arrived. Authors may overblow this notion, but it’s also very real. Right in front of my eyes, I have witnessed a piece of the planet rejuvenate.

Vegetation reclaims a mill in Sorrento, Italy - photo from TheTravel

My daughter just turned one. Last summer, as the newborn awakened every several hours, I took the overnight shifts in hopes that my wife could sleep. My daughter turned into a three-hour metronome. I could only slot in exercise in the early hours of darkness between feedings. The extreme humidity of Ohio summers kept the sessions toasty, but at least the sun was absent. So were other humans.

But I wasn’t alone.

With each shin-pounding pace, I encountered running mates. Far from the usual exercise partner, these creatures could actually fly but chose to run. Shrill calls erupted at certain hotspots, followed by a small form dashing from the grasses. Ahead of me, I found a pace car of sorts, spurring me to continue. These tiny, black-and-white striped beings were killdeer and they had a great reason to cheer my mileage goals.

Named for the two-syllable cry they often emit, killdeer almost look like tiny gulls. In fact, they are shorebirds, though they don’t spend all their lives near waterways. These birds feature a famous attribute that I witnessed firsthand. They nest in open fields with short vegetation. When babies arrive, they lack the protection of an elevated nest. To combat predation, mom and dad become vigilant watchbirds. When danger presents, they produce an astounding display. 

One night, upon returning from a run around the loop, I bottle-fed my daughter after she roused. Sitting across my arms as she ate, she wrapped her entire hand around my thumb. As I pondered how tiny she was, my mind wandered to the killdeer I had encountered jogging. They were alert, even in the middle of the night, to threats. No matter how large the predator, they were willing to sacrifice themselves for their hatchlings. I felt the same connection to my daughter. At that moment, I wondered if I had what it takes to defend her against all possible threats.

Would I be willing to sacrifice myself for her protection? I hope the answer is yes. I started to ponder all the ways in which I might not be able to offer help. I returned to the killdeer. They are willing to lure monster-sized beasts away from their chicks, but they are not all-powerful saviors. Some factors exist beyond our control. An asteroid could knock out all of humanity. To a killdeer, perhaps the corollary is a bunch of bulldozers coming in to start work on new buildings.

These birds found a new home in reclaimed farmland. One day soon, perhaps with eggs in the ground, heavy machinery will arrive to snatch it all. No amount of broken-wing distraction display will solve that problem. I thought about these lifeforms losing their homes as my daughter gripped my finger in the night. One day, sooner than I would hope, I will be unable to help her. The imagined scenarios are infinite. With good fortune, though, she will not need my aid by that point. I think that’s all for which any parent can pray.

Reclaimed Ohio farmland filled with wildflowers - photo by Kyle Stout

In 2022, the reclamation continues and accelerates. A sea of wildflowers covers most of the tract. As spring arrived, the greens of the field yielded to Oxford ragwort, a member of the daisy family. Just the other day, we witnessed red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, barn swallows, and a heron. In some spots, small ponds developed. Reeds already fill the water and frogs dot their edges. In a wooded area on one corner of the parcel, we’ve seen owls and red-headed woodpeckers. And, of course, the killdeer. They’ve recently welcomed little ones to the world, so they’re currently scurrying away from visitors as if their lives depend on it.

The rise of this new habitat is staggering in its speed and scope. Of course, before European colonization, this area was covered by beech forests and swampy groves of elms and ashes. Then the farms arrived. Now, just years later, a new realm of nature grows.

In the photo above, a dirt mound, created by dozers, stands as a reminder that this resplendent region will also be temporary. A car wash is nearly complete in one corner. A salon and a restaurant have opened. More will follow.

Senecio squalidus, Oxford ragwort - photo by Kyle Stout

I’ve fallen in love with the new wildlife in this location. I know it will disappear. Near here, Intel will soon construct the world’s largest microprocessor plant. Urbanization will continue. I’m not anti-“progress”, but these sorts of losses make me wonder if we could find a better balance between growth, sustainability, and conservation.

Hopefully, the birds can find new homes. Inextricably, I now conjure visions of killdeer when I think about my role as a sustainer for a child. I aspire to attain their levels of vigilance and dedication. When I think about them losing these new quarters to development, I consider how I will act when disaster strikes. I dread the asteroids I’m powerless to foil.

Nearly a year later, my daughter no longer wraps her hands around my finger every three hours at night. Everything is fleeting. I am grateful for seeing the yellow wildflower carpet and the killdeer displays and the swooping swallows. I rue their impending loss, but I cherish that we intersected. In this life ruled by time, maybe that’s the best we can do: intersect.

Further Reading and Exploration

Killdeer – All About Birds/Cornell Ornithology

Killdeer – Audubon Field Guide

Oxford ragwort – Wildflower Finder

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