Ask Rufus: I Call Them Killdees

March 9, 2013 6:49:29 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


One day last week in a conversation with my friends Bert and Sharon Falkner, killdeers, a delightful spring and summer bird of area fields, came up. It is a bird that I have enjoyed watching since I was a child. You will remember them as the bird that acts like it has a broken wing to draw potential predators away from its nest. 


I recall once when I was about 10 having gone hunting with my father and seeing a killdeer hopping on the ground with an outstretched wing. I thought its wing was broken and asked if I could catch it. I should have known that, when my father said, "Sure!" and then laughed, something was amiss. It seems I chased that bird halfway across a pasture and got tangled up in a "bodock" hedgerow before my father, still grinning, explained that the bird had safely led me on a wild goose chase away from its nest.  


One of the things about the bird that I found interesting was that I had always heard its name pronounced "killdee" but it was spelled "killdeer." A few years ago I was reading John J. Audubon's journal and noticed that he also called the bird a kildee. It also brought to mind not only Audubon's famous bird illustrations but that he wrote fascinating accounts of the birds and his journeys.  


Audubon first mentioned a "Killdeer Plover" on Monday Dec. 4, 1820. He was in a boat on the Mississippi River when a "dreadful night of wind" blew the boat to the bank and there he spotted the killdeer and a king fisher. Then on Jan. 11, 1821, Audubon found the following birds having been killed and for sale in the New Orleans market; "Blue cranes, Coots, Caldwall Ducks, Snow Geese, Keeldeers, White Crane or Heron and a Sand Hill Crane." 


In describing the killdeer, Audubon wrote: "Reader, suppose yourself wandering over some extensive prairie... While your wearied limbs and drooping spirits remind you of the necessity of repose and food, you see the moon's silver rays glitter on the dews that have already clothed the tall grass around you. Your footsteps, be they ever so light, strike the ear of the watchful Killdeer, who, with a velocity scarcely surpassed by that of any other bird, comes up, and is now repassing swiftly around you. His clear notes indicate his alarm, and seem to demand why you are there." 


Audubon even discussed what he believed was the bird's proper name and how it got it: "The Killdeer, or more properly 'Kildee,' (is) so named on account of its note, which may be imitated by the syllables kildee, kildee, dee, dee, dee." Actually in his journals, he spelled killdee at least four different ways. Audubon painted the Killdeer at Bayou Sarah in Louisiana in 1825. 


Audubon's famous large Elephant Folio engravings, of which the Killdeer was plate number 225, were produced between 1824 and 1838 with the Killdeer plate ca. 1834. In 1840, Audubon came out with his smaller royal octavo-size edition which he called the "petit edition". The Killdeer engraving was released in 1842 as Plate 317. The "petit" birds being much more affordable became very popular, resulting in seven editions being issued between 1840 and 1870. The first four editions are considered originals as they were produced under the supervision of Audubon or his sons who had worked with him. The post-1860 editions are considered re-strikes as Audubon and his sons were all deceased by that time.  


The first full size facsimile prints were the chromo-lithographs produced by John Bien in 1860. Since then, there have been many copies of varying quality printed of Audubon's birds. Of the later printed complete sets of the Elephant Folio birds, the 1971 Amsterdam edition of 250 sets on cotton rag paper replicating the 1830s paper are said to be the best. 


For many years I have served on adult staff at a fifth and sixth grade summer session of Episcopal Camp Bratton-Green north of Canton. There I frequently find killdees nesting in a grassy area near a lake. Often some of the kids will venture close to a nest and suddenly find a bird hopping on the ground with an outstretched wing, looking as though its wing is broken. They will ask me if they can catch the poor bird. I grin and say, "Sure!" 


Thus begins another merry wild goose chase ending far from the bird's nest.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]