Published March 24, 2012, 09:45 PM

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Many birds announce spring season

Probably every bird lover has an idea about what species signals the arrival of spring. The western meadowlark? The American robin? The Canada goose? The tree sparrow? Good choices, all of these. I would add another. Or two. Both are species that my father showed me, and so they are among the first birds that I learned to recognize. One is the killdeer. The other is the lapwing, or kievit as it is known in Dutch.

By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald

Probably every bird lover has an idea about what species signals the arrival of spring.

The western meadowlark? The American robin? The Canada goose? The tree sparrow?

Good choices, all of these.

I would add another. Or two.

Both are species that my father showed me, and so they are among the first birds that I learned to recognize.

One is the killdeer.

Killdeer are hard to overlook. They’re good sized birds, at least as large as robins. They frequent open ground, seldom bothering to hide. They have a loud and distinctive call. They exhibit interesting behavior. Plus, their plumage is distinctive enough to make recognition easy.

All in all, a good bird for a beginner.

My father’s interest, and my own, may have an element of ethnic memory, I think. His parents, my grandparents, came to the United States from Friesland, which is on the North Sea coast, partly in the Netherlands and partly in Germany. Grandpa was from the German part; Grandma from the Dutch.

Friesland is a low, flat, water-logged country, not unlike the Red River Valley (except the Friesian dikes are bigger than ours and hold back an ocean).

A bird similar to the killdeer is common there. In English, this bird is known as the lapwing, and it plays a role in English literature and folklore. In Dutch, it is the kievit, named for its call. “KeeVee! KeeVee! KeeVee!” — very much like the call of the killdeer.

The kievit is a special bird to the Dutch. An ancient tradition rewarded the person who brought the first kievit egg to the monarch. For more than century in the Netherlands, this has been the queen (since 1890, actually). This tradition is discouraged nowadays, and it may become a cultural artifact. My father knew the tradition, though, and he identified the killdeer with it.

Finding a killdeer egg is relatively easy. One has only to watch a killdeer. The hen sits closely on the nest until it is almost set upon, then bursts up and dashes away dragging a wing. This distracts predators from the nest without much risk to the hen, which foils its pursuer by taking wing.

Searching the ground where the bird first jumped up usually reveals the nest, often on bare ground. The eggs are splotched and hard to see, which offers them some protection.

Killdeer aren’t careful about where they place their eggs. I’ve found killdeer nests on hiking paths, farm driveways, gravel roads, railroad beds, boat ramps and, once, in a bare spot of dirt along the Greenway trail near downtown Grand Forks.

Kievit nest on little mounds of mud and grass in the soggy pastures of Friesland. Disturbed, the kievit behaves much as the killdeer does, a memorable performance that must have reminded my grandparents of home. I imagine that they pointed it out to my father the way my father pointed it out to me.

Killdeer are easily recognized. They’re ground-loving, long-legged and brown on the top side. The belly and breast are white, with two dark bands across the breast. The head is patterned in brown, black and white. There’s a yellow patch on the rump, visible in flight and when the bird does its broken-wing trick.

The tundra swan is another spring species my father showed me. One day when I was very young, he came up to the house to get my sister and me, loaded us in the pickup and drove us out to the fields. There were the swans — dozens of them, dazzling against the black earth. The next morning, after milking the cows, he and I went down to the pasture pond where swans were courting, bending their long necks gracefully, preening and displaying making a remarkable noise.

It’s one of my earliest memories, and one of my favorite memories of my father.

His knowledge of birds wasn’t vast. He knew the ducks because he was a hunter, but to him, every hawk was a chicken hawk, and every small bird was a sparrow. He told me that great blue herons were “shitepokes” and that they made the low-pitched pumping noise that I later learned belong to the American bittern.

But he knew enough to recognize the wonder of birds and to encourage his children to appreciate it, too.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 103; or send email to mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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