Some birds are so much a part of farm life that they’re considered co-workers. A fortunate barn has its barn owls, to feast on grain-nibbling mice. Or barn swallows, patrolling for mosquitoes. In spring the kildeer, a type of plover, skitter across newly tilled fields and gardens in search of caterpillars, worms, grasshoppers and bugs. Strictly ground feeders, they depend on wide-open spaces where insects are easy to find. Even home gardens, mowed lawns, ball fields and other grassy places attract them. They seem to profit by human company, which tends to deter foxes and other shy predators. They consume their share of garden pests in return.
Kildeer, as they are generally called, make a racket at nesting time with their high-pierced screeches, and it is a sound we always look forward to, a sure sign of spring. Their nests are hidden in plain view — just a slight depression in the ground lined with a few twigs and blades of grass. But as with any real estate, it’s location that counts. The parents prefer a gravelly spot where the buff-gray eggs, blotched with darker hues, blend so perfectly with the earth that you can stare at the spot and not see them. There are nearly always four, set so that the pointed ends all face the center of the clutch. If you come anywhere near, the parents give the hammiest broken-wing performance in the avian world, to lead you away. When the babies hatch, they are tiny, downy things that are ready for action as soon as their feathers dry, skittering and squeaking for all they’re worth. The sight gives us so much pleasure that we have sometimes delayed tilling so as not to disturb a nest.
Like farmers, birds are often gamblers. One year both we and the kildeer took a chance on an early hint of balmy weather — and lost. A snowfall that blanketed our fields for a number of days made life difficult for some of our early-sown crops and left the kildeers with nowhere to forage. One misguided pair had even produced hatchlings. This is the way nature works. A mix of the impetuous and the slow, the high-fliers and the cautious investors, takes any population through the vagaries of climates and seasons. We hoped those early arrivals were hanging out at a nearby rocky cove (technically they are shore birds, after all), and would be back to watch us replant seedlings as needed, looking for any bugs they could snatch up, our partners in folly.
Last year they never showed up at all. It’s a little early right now, but we’re on the lookout for them. Overall, their population is declining, although they are not at this time considered vulnerable. If you see or hear any at your place, give them some privacy and a big thumbs-up from me.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”