Killdeer nest found on road at refuge

Published 1:11 am Sunday, April 12, 2009

NATCHEZ — Sometimes traffic cones aren’t for construction purposes.

At St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge, those bright orange rubber cones are set up to make sure four baby birds stay safe.

A killdeer bird has set up a small nest on the edge of Pin Tail Road, the gravelly main roadway into the refuge, and the tan eggs with dark brown spots are nearly impossible to see unless you are looking for them.

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And the refuge employees almost missed it.

“The only way to find a nest like that is to see the female get up and walk away,” Refuge Manager Bob Strader said. “She pretends to have a broken win and then eventually flies off to lure predators away from where the eggs are.

“We were watching and said, ‘You know, she’s done that from the same place three or four times now. I bet she’s got a nest over there somewhere.’”

Strader, who marked the nest March 29, said the refuge is partially flooded from recent heavy rains so there is less traffic passing down that road anyway.

He said the mother bird is relatively tolerant of visitors to the nest, although she does use distraction tactics to keep her babies safe.

“Sometimes she kind of defends her nest — she flares out her wings as if she’s going to attack you, or she walks or runs away to try to draw you away from her nest,” Strader said. “She runs down the road a little bit, flies away and makes a loop and comes back.”

The killdeer, a common shorebird, is known for its fondness for human modified habitats and its willingness to nest close to people. While this makes them vulnerable to tragedy, it also makes them a very successful breed.

When animals like cows or horses get near a killdeer nest, the bird will fluff itself up, display its tail over its head and run at the animal to make it change its path.

The eggs, Strader said, are expected to hatch soon, and the baby birds should be able to leave the nest as soon as their down dries.

“Usually those kinds of nests on the ground are more susceptible to predators and all that, so they have a tendency to have a very short incubation period,” Strader said. “They will follow their mother around and feed — she won’t bring them food. They will run around on the ground and feed on their own.”

Strader said this is the first killdeer nest he’s seen, but it is also his first real nesting season at the refuge.

He said the wet climate is conducive to the killdeer’s way of life.

“Some may migrate, so we may get a few more in the wintertime than in the summer, but in general they’re here year-round,” he said. “They sort of use that road as if it were a beach.

“They roll a few stones out of the way, and they don’t seem to be very picky about where they nest. They just find a place where the eggs won’t roll around.”