Ahead of me on the Panhandle Trail just after the Oakdale crossing it suddenly looked as if the gravel was moving on its own. I was hot and a little tired but as I slowed I realized it wasn’t the gravel at all but a little family of killdeer out for a walk, two adults and three little ones.
Killdeer are related to sandpipers, so picture the long thin legs, narrow horizontal bodies and long beaks. You’ve no doubt heard a bird call a high-pitched “kill-deer! kill-deer!” just about anywhere but especially near water, even along the rivers in the city.
They nest in gravel, usually along streams, because their food source, insects are plentiful at the water’s edge. However, they will adapt to any gravel if a food source is near, and I’ve even seen them nesting in gravel between the rails of the railroad track. Their coloring, grey and tan with dark brown stripes around the neck and eyes, blends them in with the gravel, a perfect camouflage.
Until they start to move. Anyone seeing moving bits of gravel move around should at least look a little closer, and you may see the little ones, just a puff of soft feathers atop long skinny legs, marked just like their parents in miniature and just as loud as their parents but just saying the second syllable of their name only.
As soon as I stopped my bicycle and pulled out my camera, the little ones turned left and away from me, bibbling away in the opposite direction toward home, while their parents each did the “broken wing trick”—slowly hobbling along dragging one outspread wing as if they were injured, trying to lead me away from their babies and their nest.
Mind you, this family had just been dodging bicycles, but moving objects don’t really frighten them, only big ones that stop and look at them.
As soon as the babies were safely near their little crossover point, their parents joined them, making loud, sharp warning sounds.
And from here, it’s easy to anthropomorphize, especially when there are parent birds and baby birds involved. Even if they aren’t thinking and saying what humans would in this case, some things are universal, and the little drama probably went on like this…
All was well until one little guy decided he wasn’t quite ready to go home yet, and turned around and ran off, his little legs moving so fast he appeared to be hovering an inch or so above the ground.
Dad wasn’t happy. Apparently he had decided this was one day the kids should listen to him. But where had he gone? Perfect camouflage all around, the little one had disappeared.
He spotted the little guy and began trying to gently guide him back toward the crossover, which was quite a distance away. The little one would have none of it.
Then he tried to show the little guy how to cross the ditch, a much shorter route. Even a sibling, who had already crossed over, came to the other side of the barrier, calling to the little one (but probably yelling “chicken!”, as siblings will do…do birds call each other “chicken”?).
“Not me!” the little one said, probably a good decision since climbing or hopping over a 12-inch concrete barrier would be quite a feat for something the size of two cotton balls running around on toothpicks.
Then he realized he was all alone, and stopped.
Suddenly Dad was there, flying back and forth and landing to lead the little one to the other end of the barrier, standing on the other side and making, instead of the usual sharp warning sound, a soft, comforting chirring sound.
He finally led the little bit all the way down to the other end of the concrete barrier and convinced him to cross through the weedy strip where the concrete barrier ended, and they all made a ruckus when they got together again on the other side.
Then they blended into the pile of gravel on the other side of the barrier. Hope Dad had a good Father’s Day.