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Scott Rall: Oh, look, I have a broken wing

SCOTT RALL/DAILY GLOBE A killdeer’s speckled eggs lie open to viewing, but only to those with patience and a sharp eye.

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

There was a little blurb in the sports section a few weeks back about yours truly. I was nominated and named as a Hero of Conservation by Field and Stream magazine for the month of June.

The magazine for the past eight years has been recognizing three people per month. I actually had a small write-up and photo in the June addition of the publication.

The nomination was a result of my efforts to increase grassland habitats in our part of the state. I certainly have not done this by myself, but as an active member of the Nobles County chapter of Pheasants Forever. The project that has seemed to catch everyone’s eye is the Worthington Wells WMA located just a mile north of Lake Bella, located within the well head protection area of the water supply for Worthington.

I was out on this site on Sunday looking around to see what the monsoon rains had done to the new seeding which took place a few weeks back. Some of the area is going to drown out, but you could actually see the native grasses coming up in rows. The seedlings were less than an inch tall but they were getting established and not all of them will die. It was pretty cool to see.

There were ducks flying all over the place, and I think that any of them that had nested in the grass along the creek had been flooded out. There were people fishing on the Lake Bella grade in the current, and as I stood out there in the mud I was imagining what this place was going to look like in three years and wondering how much additional wildlife will be reared on these acres.

As I was standing there I noticed about 10 birds called killdeer. They are in the family of birds called plovers. They are about the size of a robin and are brown on the top and white on the bottom. Killdeer are ground nesters and do not actually build a nest. They create a shallow depression in the dirt about the size of a coffee saucer and lay their eggs right on the ground.

Nature is such a wondrous thing. This bird lays its eggs in the open and then finds a way to hatch and raise the young right underfoot of everything taller than a painted turtle. Adult killdeer have been using the same technique for thousands of years and, to my wonderment, it still works. They use the broken wing, come-eat-me, the injured bird disguise to lure predators away from the nest and when they have led them far enough they just get up and fly away.

Mama killdeer was giving this broken wing imitation for all she was worth. She would land close to me and then fake a broken wing as she limped away, dragging the wing on the ground — all the time calling out like she was using her very last breath.

If at first you don’t succeed then try, try again, and this is exactly what she did. This ingrained and inherited smoke screen was played out over and over about 10 different times.

This has happened to me many times before, and for as much time and energy as I have expended to actually find the eggs on the ground I was never able to do so until today. As I stood there I saw not two feet from my boots the location of four killdeer eggs all pointed with the smaller end of the egg to the center. They were mottled with brownish to black specks and lines. I took the accompanying picture.

If I had been three feet farther away I would never had made eye contact with them. As soon as I saw how close I was, I moved a short distance away to see if she would come back. The answer was a big fat no. Only after I had moved 50 years way would she come back to check on the soon-to-be offspring. The other adults were also calling and calling, although I did not see more than one bird do the broken wing imitation.

A baby killdeer is what is called “precocial.” This means that they can see to move about and start foraging right after the hatch. They are considered a shore bird but often live far from water. They use sparsely vegetated habitats and will often nest on gravel roof tops and even on the edge of gravel roads. These, I think, fare poorly with the township graders.

I would have thought that after thousands of years that predators would have figured out that the broken wing act is a fake. I guess when we think about evolution we don’t have a long enough time span. A few thousand years to us is an eternity but to Mother Nature it is most likely a five-minute nap.

A successfully hatched killdeer egg will sprout another of its kind to pass on the broken wing act. A baby killdeer is about as cute as a bird can get. They are not very big but have really long legs. A juvenile looks like an eight-inch big bird from Sesame street. I am quite sure that a six-foot tall track star could not catch one.

This is going to be a great project when it is completed and it is already raising wildlife that would not have a place to thrive without this project. When Pheasants Forever and its partners purchase land for wildlife habitat many folks will say that is just so they can hunt and kill some more pheasants.

Sure, pheasants will be reared on this property, but it is about so much more. Whether it be killdeers, honey bees, mice, or any other number of God’s creatures, this property will benefit all wildlife game and non-game alike. Protecting the water source is every bit as important. Please don’t’ forget this.

I also saw a bird called a bobolink on this site. They are a grassland land bird and are just beautiful.

He needs a place to call home as well. Nobles County Pheasants Forever, in conjunction with the Build a Wildlife Area Fund, is coming down to the deadline for the Build a Wildlife Area fundraising campaign if you as a donor want your name on the monument.

This project will have a monument placed on site with the name of every donor who gives $500 or more. We are still active in this effort, and if you care about clean water or creating habitat for killdeers and bobolinks and other wildlife, please consider giving me a call at 507-360-6027 to make a contribution.

These efforts are hard work. It requires help from all that can give a little. Grassland habitats are the most endangered habitat type in North America today. In South Dakota alone over one million acres of grass land habitat has been lost (almost all of it native prairie) in each year for the last three years with a projected loss of another million acres this year. Four million acres of grasslands computes to 6,250 square miles of grass that has been lost and converted to other uses. Once it is gone it is very likely lost forever.

Conversion of grasslands has not been done at this pace since the dirty 30s and the dust bowl, and we all know how that worked out.

Not a pretty picture. If you have not seen this site or walked on an area WMA lately, you should do so soon. There is so much to see and experience, and this killdeer display will stick with me for a very long time.

You don’t know how long it might stick with you. It is days like this that motivate me to do more and work harder for the habitat needs and challenges that our natural resources are facing. There has never been a more pressing time than today for grassland habitats.

Sportsmen and the general population need to see what’s happening on the landscape today and get involved with either time or energy, and if you’ve none of that to spare, use your wallet to make a difference by contributing to efforts like the Worthington Wells WMA. Now is the time to act.