For the Birds Radio Program: Where Are the Killdeer?

Original Air Date: May 4, 1994

Where have all the Killdeer gone? (3:34) Pretty sure this is the right script for this placeholder.

Audio missing


As ice softens and decays on Northland marshes in late March, and as water warms up throughout April, I expect to hear piercing calls of Killdeer, and to see their delicate, falcon-like forms flying above the red-wing-laden cattails. I expect Killdeer to be abundant, second only to Red-winged Blackbirds in good marshes, but the past few years their numbers have dwindled. So far this spring, I haven’t seen more than two a day, even in prime habitat. Eagles outnumbered them, often eight-to-one, every day I’ve been out, every place I’ve been.

We’re not supposed to panic when a bird’s numbers decrease. After all, it may simply reflect natural population swings and the species may recover without intervention. But Killdeer aren’t known to have a cyclic population, and human activities are definitely a threat to them. Wetlands continue to decline. Many developers find it cheaper to buy marshland outside of cities and pay the legal costs of fighting any environmentalists still not too burnt-out to at least try to protect the wetlands.

The course of battle usually follows the pattern of Duluth’s Miller Trunk corridor. First one developer gets permits to drain part of a quality wetland—after all, it’s just one little development which will bring lots of jobs and money to the community, and besides, they’ll sue the city if denied the right to use their own property, which they bought because it was so cheap. The parking lot runoff and improved roads and increased traffic take care of most of the frogs, salamanders, and turtles, most of the wilder birds and mammals disappear, and instead of a quality wetland we now have a fragmented, poor-quality wetland, but at least it’s still wet. More developers enter the picture, each with a project guaranteed to vastly improve the economy of the city, each which will only drain one tiny piece of one unessential, poor-quality wetland. Each one eventually gets all the necessary permits.

Of course, not all Killdeer live on cattail marshes. Many live on pastures and upland fields, and feed and run about on large expanses of lawn. But these illiterates never notice the warning flags when a lawn’s been sprayed. Here at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus where this radio program is produced, every piece of lawn is laced with herbicides and sometimes insecticides every spring and summer, which does a number on the earthworms and slugs and other tiny creatures that make up the diet of the Killdeer and, quite naturally, has pretty much eliminated the Killdeer as well.

I suppose there are those who treasure discount department stores and shopping malls and dandelion-free lawns more than they treasure Killdeer. But I suspect that most of the people whose activities hurt Killdeer never realize what they’re doing. Perhaps we should tell them.