Born Ready!

One would not expect to hear the inclusion of brown and black wings when describing a deer, and mentioning they are capable of breaking into rapid overhead flight just like other birds just sounds crazy, but a killdeer isn’t exactly a deer. It’s a bird, a medium sized plover with a cute round head, short bill and large dark eyes ringed bright red. They are especially slender with lanky legs and have a long, pointy tail with exceptionally long wings for their diminutive size. Their white chest is barred with two black bands, and the brown face is marked with black and white patches. They received the name Killdeer because one of their many calls is said to be a high pitched sound resembling kill- deer. The infants are small, bright-eyed, fluffy replicas of their parents, miniatures so to speak. I’m sure all Killdeer parents consider their children “mini-me’s.” Although referred to as shorebirds, they often choose to live far from water such as on a golf course, an athletic field, a residential driveway, a parking lot or you may find them nesting on a gravel-covered roof. So the killdeer is considered one of the least water associated of all shorebirds. They nest in open areas, mainly on the ground and usually in gravel with no traditional nest structure that would stand out, which is extremely precarious when humans are walking and driving about. There is a method to this madness, though. Their 3 to 4 eggs are speckled, allowing them to blend nicely in a slight depression among the stones. Becoming incognito avoids attention by predatory animals who rely mainly on sight for hunting. We get quite a few calls at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport this time of year from people who see infant killdeer on the ground and insist the birds are too small to be on their own and something must have happened to their mother. After confirming they are killdeer, we advise the caller to let them be, as killdeer are precocial, which means they are able to move about, as well as, forage for food such as insects right after hatching. When hunting, these tawny birds (even the babies) run across the ground in spurts, stopping with a jolt every so often to see if they’ve startled up any insect prey. Due to an extra two-week stay in the egg over altricial birds, they are born ready, eyes open, eager to follow their parents immediately, much like ducklings or quail and closer to independence than most baby birds. If you come upon baby killdeer, know that Mom is watching and if you get too close to her babies she will enter the scene feigning injury by using her famous “broken wing act” to distract you (the predator) from her nesting territory. Recently, we received a call from someone aboard the Marine Base in Jacksonville who said two baby birds were stuck in a storm drain, beneath the grate. Fortunately, the drain area was dry. I thought it unusual for two baby birds to fall into a drain together and asked her to describe the birds to me. While talking on the phone, another Good Samaritan happened upon the site and reached into the grate and took each of them out and placed them in the grass. The caller was hesitant to touch them for fear the parents would not reclaim them if human scent was present. I assured her that would not be a problem because most birds’ sense of smell is not as highly developed as other senses, and they will be happy just to get their offspring back. After discerning they were killdeer from the lady’s description, I advised them to step away from the infants to encourage Mom to recover her kids and as expected, Momma rushed from hiding and started flapping around on the ground while shrieking her distress call. The baby waders scurried to a bush, and their Mom soon followed. Keeping tabs on these frantic, squealing little babies who scatter in all directions to forage or when scared is a tough job for Killdeer parents, but both Mom and Dad stay after them constantly. Occasionally, there is a need for our shelter to take in a Killdeer infant or two when evidence indicates there are no parents to provide the training and protection they need, but we’re on top of what’s required to raise them for their second chance in the wild; simulated habitat shielded from human contact, proper diet and time to grow. Watch out for those little guys and girls for they may be running around in a driveway or parking lot near you!!

Linda Bergman-ALthouse
Author of “Save Them All

Elegant Danger

She stood almost four feet high, a thin, willow of a bird who slowly strides with grace but also, always with purpose. That is the way of a marsh bird like a Great Blue Heron, the consummate stalker. She finally made it to an outside transition enclosure, patiently awaiting the day of her release. She towered on a platform close to staged limbs used for cover and peered beyond the caging to where she’d like to be. This GB Heron was found in a ditch in Swansboro during January 2010, emaciated, unable to walk, and too weak to eat on her own. She’s enjoyed (at least we rehabbers would like to think so) a lengthy stay at the shelter where she was provided constant care for her wounded right leg, which required antibiotics to fight infection. When it comes to feeding tubes, to ensure she was getting enough nutrition until she began eating on her own, we had to use the “big momma” of all feeding tubes because the neck of a great Blue Heron is about half the body length. Although she probably missed some of the delicacies of her usual diet in the wild of snakes, insects, and frogs, a steady replenishment of fish in her pool helped her put the weight back on she needed.

One enclosure away was another Great Blue Heron, found at the Coast Guard Station on Emerald Isle after he tangled with a barbed wire fence in February. His right wing suffered several lacerations, even exposing bone. He could not fly and was also starving, weak and unable to eat on his own. After daily, extensive wound care, antibiotics and assistance eating, he awaited release, as well. All animals have their own unique disposition, especially in the presence of people. This Heron definitely didn’t enjoy being in captivity and was quite anxious about it.
Great Blue Herons provide unique challenges to wildlife rehabilitators unlike the challenges frisky mammals and taloned raptors pose. Getting food down a GB Heron’s long neck is one, but at the top of that neck is a head wielding a sharp dagger of a beak six to eight inches long and capable of dangerous power and speed. Respect for the abilities of the Great Blue Heron is a must for a wildlife rehabilitator and precaution has to be taken such as appropriate holds and wearing personal protective equipment when working with these great birds.

Great Blue Herons are quite common in our area and many Great Blues have been admitted to our shelter for treatment over the years. And they are an awkward handful!
Rehabilitation Supervisors conferred last week and finally decided both Great Blue Heron patients were moving well, eating well and ready for release. Friday, April 16, 2010, became the last day they each had to ride in a fancy box with funny holes and a handle. After a short drive, the Herons were released in an area adjacent their natural habitat of marshlands. Watching them saunter away in that most majestic and dignified way they do was very fulfilling, but also caused an “in unison” sigh of relief among the rehabbers present. Although the Herons’ ages are not known, I’m sure they still have a lot of life ahead of them because Great Blue Herons live long lives, some as long as seventeen years and the record for a banded Great Blue Heron is twenty-four years!

It’s a new day! Enjoy it!
Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”