Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Birds, our Teachers

The Clothesline Report has been favored with contributions from some really good birders since we started writing.  I don’t count myself among them. But every spring, I marvel at the birds that visit Good Hand Farm. The barn swallows always come back to hatch their young in the barn – and mercilessly dive at us when we come too near. The iridescent blue tree swallows do the same in bird houses along our fences. The great blue heron always comes back to fish in the stream that borders our fields. And a harrier hawk inevitably manages to get one of our chickens, despite the vigilance of our fearless rooster.

There is no end to the display of the creation’s wonders in the avian migration that wends its way to our home.

And yet, I think our favorite of all are the killdeer.

Killdeer come to the farm to nest in the fields
In case you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing one yourself, killdeer are small ground-nesting shorebirds that are drawn to tilled farmland habitats, which help conceal their exposed eggs. Every spring when we till ground, a few pairs will nest right among the row-crops.  Of course, we can’t abandon the fields to them entirely, and that’s what makes for the fun.  It’s amazing how well camouflaged those little eggs are.  But we don’t much fear stepping on them, because the killdeer run around loudly warning us when we come into the territory they’ve claimed for themselves.

When we get too close to the unseen nest, the killdeer entertain us with their broken-wing routine.  With mostly white and black plumage, they writhe nearby on the ground and expose the bright auburn feathers of an apparently broken wing, calling out piteously.  Of course, in nature this behavior draws away predators approaching the nest, and the broken wing becomes instantly as good as new.

"Injured" killdeer: predators can't resist the display
Several years ago, however, I was cultivating ground with my old Allis-Chalmers tractor, and the thrum of the diesel engine drowned out all the overtures of the alarmed killdeer mother.  I was unwittingly bearing down on the exposed nest, when the unheeded bird resorted to the most desperate measure of all.  She flew directly into the path of the tractor, landed in front of her nest, and spread out her wings to make herself as big and fearsome as she could manage, screaming at me in full throat.  With only a few yards to spare, it finally dawned on me what was going on, and the diesel came to a halt.

Nest saved. A tiny half-pound bird staring down a tractor weighing several tons.

It’s remarkable what we can learn from the creatures around us, isn’t it? Martin Luther thought so, at least.  In his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, he wrote that God “is making the birds our schoolmasters and teachers.”  He added, “We have as many teachers and preachers as there are little birds in the air.”

Wherever you live, I hope you get out this spring and take special notice of the littlest creatures around you. You and I were created to be earth-keepers: protectors and stewards of all the creation.  But more often than not, it works the other way around: it’s the little wild creatures that inspire and enrich us.

Thanks for reading, and God bless you.

J. Elwood

These killdeer eggs should be pretty easy to see, right?
Look again: What we see from 6' away in the asparagus


  1. Wow, love this! I started "birding" last year as an extension of photography and am having such fun. If you're game, I'd love to come see your kildeers!