When I retired to 25 years ago to my 160-acre dairy farm, I decided to restore the 120 tillable acres to the way they were when my Swedish grandparents homesteaded the property in 1885. At that time this typical example of central Minnesota glacial wilderness was covered with native prairie grasses, 30 wetlands and fragments of an oak savanna. My renter and I formulated a 10-year restoration plan in 1992, which included planting 120 acres of native prairie grasses, restoring 30 drained wetlands, and planting 1,500 conifer and bur oak trees into two savannas.
During those 10 years, it was exciting to witness a daily transformation in the summer landscape and the return of a wide variety of wildlife, especially birds. And that is when I met my portal species, a killdeer I called Mabel.
Killdeer are not yard birds. In fact, because they are ground feeders and nesters, they spend their entire, reclusive summer lives well-hidden in prairie vegetation or fields. As a result, many casual birders may not be familiar with their “kill-jer” call, their star, brown and white plumage, or their early spring arrival with the robins and blackbirds.
Although, as a teenager, I lifted the tractor cultivator many times to avoid destroying a killdeer nest in a corn field, I had never flushed a female from her nest in the grass. Then, one morning, as I entered the restored short grass prairie next to my driveway to hoe a native prairie flower bed, I startled a killdeer from her nest and watched as she frantically scolded me. She feigned a broken wing as she struggled through the short grass to divert my attention from her shallow pebble nest, which held four camouflaged, brown-and-black speckled eggs. I immediately located the nest and marked it with a stone to prevent stepping on it. I decided to call her Mabel.
Thereafter, each day I returned to hoe in the vicinity of her nest, I announced my arrival with a short, one-sided conversation with Mabel, until one day she allowed me to get within 4 feet without indicating any uneasiness. I realized then that I had earned her trust that I was not going to invade her private space. This became standard routine, until one day while weeding a flower bed, I straightened up to stretch, leaned on the end of my hoe and turned around to admire my work. To my amazement, there was Mabel, following me at just 10 feet, feeding on insects and worms which I had dislodged from the moist soil. Only then did I realize our brief relationship had developed into a most unlikely trust and mutual appreciation. This almost daily routine continued for two weeks until I arrived one morning to find the inevitable — an empty nest.
The four eggs had hatched the day before, and the mother and her chicks would not return. I resigned myself to the fact that I would never see Mabel again.
The next spring, while getting my mail, I decided to check on some new flowers along the edge of one of the restored wetlands. Suddenly, 20 feet ahead in the short prairie grass, a killdeer arose from her nest but without any signs of alarm. She watched me but stood her ground. Could it possibly be Mabel? The nest was just 20 feet from the previous year’s, and after I assured her that I was her old friend, she relaxed and resumed incubating her four eggs. It was Mabel, and we resumed our routine.
Mabel reappeared a third year. But this time she showed no signs of uneasiness, and we quickly continued our friendship. However, that year was to be different. One late morning, as I stopped to visit with Mabel, she was absent from her nest. Instead, a wet, newly hatched chick occupied the nest with three eggs. I hurried home to get my camera and recorded the event. Five hours later I returned and found four tan cotton balls on spindly stilts, with their proud mother hovering over them. With disbelief, I also captured this magic moment on film. That was the last time I saw Mabel. But, as I now observe killdeer sharing my restored prairies, I like to think of them as some of her descendants and how fortunate I am to be able to claim killdeer as my portal species.
Dave Jacobson, Sauk Centre
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