Nesting Killdeer Called for Delay of Games

A clutch of eggs has postponed the opening of a new athletic facility, but officials at the California high school don't mind.

The Rio Americano High School Raiders planned to open their newly renovated track and football field just outside Sacramento, California, for a lacrosse game today. A pair of Killdeer, however, had other plans.

Late last month, while putting the finishing touches on the field's artificial turf, construction workers discovered a clutch of four Killdeer eggs in one of the end zones, the Sacramento Bee recently reported. Upon finding the nest, the crew immediately installed a protective barrier. 

Brian Ginter, the school’s principal, tells the Bee that the field’s opening day will be postponed until the eggs have hatched and the birds have vacated the nest. The average incubation period for Killdeer eggs is 24 to 28 days, and the birds typically don't hang around long after hatching, so Ginter estimates the field will likely be ready for action by the time students return from spring break.    

In the meantime, the school is using a nearby field for practice and games. Still, Ginter says that some parents and players are anxious for the new field to open. “But in the long run you're just teaching them to be patient," Ginter tells Capital Public Radio. "We're sharing the world here. It's not just ours to do with what we want with. So, we decided to let the birds stay and do what they need to do.”

Even if the school did want to do something, it legally doesn't have many options. Although Killdeer, a species of plover that can be found along water and inland, are not endangered, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in the United States. To move the nest would require the federal government’s permission.

This is hardly the first case of Killdeer nesting in an inconvenient spot—to humans, that is. The big-eyed birds are known to nest on pretty much any flat, open surface with good visibility. When they do spot a potential threat, the adult will feign injury, fluttering along the ground in a “broken-wing” act to lure intruders away from the nest. 

In June 2018, a Killdeer nest on the site for the main stage of Ottawa, Ontario’s 10-day Bluesfest music festival caused a ruckus. Plans for the event—billed as Canada’s answer to Bonnaroo—were put on hold as organizers decided what to do with the nest. Under Canada's Migratory Birds Convention Act, a complementary piece of legislation to the MBTA, any disturbance of the nest also has to be federally approved. Four days after the initial discovery of the nest, Environment and Climate Change Canada greenlit the relocation and the nest was safely transferred 80 feet from the original spot.  

Killdeer are also keen on gravel, and an upstate New York church parking lot seemed as good a home as any to another nesting duo. Nature photographer Melissa Groo identified the nest in spring 2016 and, realizing the camouflaged spotted eggs were at risk of being run over by a car, built a barrier with branches to protect the clutch. She then routinely checked in on the nest until eventually she was rewarded with shots of two fluffy little chicks. 

Soon, barring any surprises, a similar scene should play out on the field at Rio Americano High School. Perhaps then, when observers are treated to the delight that is Killdeer chicks racing about on spindly legs, any remaining grievances over the delay will be long forgotten and considered well worth it.