For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Killdeer

Original Air Date: June 30, 1995

Humans may have a lot to offer some birds, but not baby Killdeer. 4:00

Audio missing


One of the most beautiful and endearing treasures in the bird world is a baby Killdeer. Last week, when one tried to cross a busy road in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood, it was rescued by some people who weren’t quite sure what to do with it after they picked it up, so they brought it to me. This happened the day the wind shifted off the lake again, and the tiny thing was more hypothermic than hungry, so it snuggled deep into my hand and fell fast asleep.

Killdeers are precocial, meaning their babies are covered with soft down and can walk and follow their mothers so they won’t get mixed up and accidentally follow the wrong bird. They recognize mom by her appearance and voice, and no other bird will do. Duck, chicken, or turkey chicks hatched in an incubator may become imprinted on their human caretakers, but that doesn’t matter on a farm. Unfortunately, if a wild imprinted bird gets separated from its parents, it won’t learn to eat the proper food and won’t learn the socialization and survival skills it needs.

We humans are programmed to nurture tiny things with big eyes. Once a baby Killdeer’s big black eyes meet ours, it’s hard to resist the belief that it desperately needs us. But in reality, the only thing a baby Killdeer needs is its parents, and when a person finds one in a precarious situation, like trying to cross a busy road, the only intervening should be to gently carry it to the other side and put it down. Baby Killdeers make a soft but piercing cry which their parents recognize, and as soon as the human gets out of the way, the parents return. It is a cruel myth that birds won’t accept a baby tainted with the smell of human hands—in reality, birds have a better sense of smell than we usually give them credit for, but don’t use scent to recognize their little ones any more than we humans do. Like us, birds recognize their young by appearance and voice. As long as a baby is returned quickly, so the parents don’t give it up for dead, it has an excellent chance of being raised despite human handling. Problem is, once most people pick up a baby Killdeer, they don’t want to give it up, and the baby invariably dies. Like all precocial birds, healthy baby Killdeer have enough body fat to sustain themselves for at least a few days, but then suddenly fail. People raising them always seem mystified about how they died when they’d been doing so well.

The woman who brought me the Killdeer knew where it came from. Conveniently, it was a vacant lot right in my neighborhood. She came well after nine in the evening, so I couldn’t bring the baby back until morning, but I got up at four-thirty to carry my soft, tiny bundle home. The parents were running about, calling, when we arrived, and the baby instantly recognized their voices and started peeping. They yelled back, but were hardly about to fly over to take it from my hands. So I found a nice stony spot—probably pretty close to where it hatched out—and set it down. One of the parents flew in a large circle around me, so I withdrew behind some trees to see what happened. The other parent flew across the road—perhaps other babies were on the other side—but this one drew closer and closer to the spot where its baby was calling desperately. The parent seemed anxious about me watching, so I finally had to turn my back on the reunion and return home, trusting that when nature takes its course, the result is usually satisfactory. I wish more people would trust in nature—that is, after all, how we got baby birds in the first place.