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Year of the bird: Killdeer nest prompts planning shuffle for Greening Up The Mountains

Wren Gelbaugh, of Sylva, peers at the killdeer nest during Greening Up The Mountains. Mary Gelbaugh photo Wren Gelbaugh, of Sylva, peers at the killdeer nest during Greening Up The Mountains. Mary Gelbaugh photo

Every year, Sylva’s population quadruples on the last Saturday in April as more than 10,000 people flock to the tiny town for Greening Up the Mountains, a long-running festival featuring live music on two stages, a 5K run and more than 125 vendors offering crafts, food and information about local nonprofits. 

Planning the event is a year-round endeavor for town staff, and as this year’s April 27 date drew closer, all the ducks seemed to be sorting themselves into their respective rows — until a different kind of bird threw a wrench in the plans. 

“It’s one of those things — I’ll do whatever we need to do to protect these killdeer, but I just can’t help but laugh at the timing a little bit,” said Jake Scott, public works director for the town. “It’s the town’s biggest annual festival, and 10 to 12,000 people turn out for this thing, and it’s a bird that probably weighs less than a pound. It sent a shock wave through the entire plan. You have to laugh at the irony a little bit.”

The killdeer, Charadrius vociferus, is a species of shorebird with a marked apathy for shore life. Save the uppermost reaches of Canada, it can be found throughout North America, from coastal Carolina to Nebraska to California — in North Carolina, it’s actually less common along the coast than in the landlocked areas of the state. 

Unlike most mountain-dwelling birds, killdeer nest on open ground such as athletic fields, golf courses and parking lots, laying four to six eggs and raising one to three broods per season. With just a week to go before Greening Up the Mountains, just such a nest was found in the parking lot at Bridge Park in Sylva, smack in the middle of where the town had been planning to set up the food vendors. 

“It is a gravel lot and they tend to like gravel, and it’s close enough to water,” said Town Manager Paige Dowling. “Just with a large festival, it’s not an ideal time for the birds.”

Scott said Quintin Ellison, general manager for The Sylva Herald, brought the birds’ presence to his attention after finding them the weekend preceding Greening Up. The pair of killdeer at Bridge Park has laid four eggs there, and they’re quite proactive in their efforts to keep those eggs safe. When an intruder appears, the parents react with loud calls and attempts to feign injury. They can often be seen running away from the threatening creature, holding a wing at a crooked angle to make the potential predator believe that it’s broken and the bird will be easy prey. The hope is that the intruder will chase after the adult bird — which, of course, will fly away at the last minute — and forget about the eggs. 

 

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A killdeer parent feigns a broken wing in an attempt to protect its nest. Holly Kays photo

 

Upon receiving Ellison’s call, the town immediately sprang into action, consulting with wildlife professionals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, erecting a barricade around the nest and tweaking vendor plans for the festival. 

“We’ve reconfigured the vendor spacing and the vendor layout in that lot,” said Scott. “We’ve moved a couple food vendors to the other side of Bridge Park, and we’ve moved a few merchandise vendors to make some space for them.”

There was a risk, however, that too many simultaneous intruders could cause the birds to abandon their nest. The town had to figure out how to keep the birds’ newfound notoriety from earning them too many visitors, as news of the killdeer situation had swept across social media and been picked up by various local news outlets.

To that end, Greening Up the Mountains and the Sylva Police Department worked to recruit volunteers dedicated to keeping the killdeer safe, and it worked — a pair of tents were set up for the Bird Guard, said festival organizer Kendra Hamm, with various shifts of volunteers rotating in and out throughout the day to remind festivalgoers to give the birds some room. The goal was to give the pair at least 64 square feet of space, Dowling said. 

“Regardless of the volunteers, the birds were freaking out all day,” said Hamm. “They were flying and fussing all over the place and chirping all day. I felt bad for them.”

Every parent deals with some season of crisis and uncertainty, and it would seem the same holds true for killdeer. Fortunately, this pair seems to have weathered the storm well. As of Monday, April 29, the killdeer were still maintaining their presence at Bridge Park, keeping the eggs warm and safe until they’re ready to hatch in a couple weeks. 

“They’re still there and probably very happy the festival is over with,” said Hamm. 

 

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The town erected a temporary barrier to give the killdeer nest some space. Holly Kays photo

 

In terms of conservation, killdeer are considered a species of least concern, but while they’re common in many of North Carolina’s foothills and piedmont counties, they’re rare in Jackson County, according to the Carolina Bird Club website. Killdeer numbers dropped about 47 percent across their range between 1966 and 2014, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, though a 2012 study estimated about 2 million breeding birds in North Carolina, an increase over figures reported in a 2006 study. They’re doing better than most shorebird species, as they’re willing to nest close to people and use urban habitats, but they’re vulnerable to car crashes and pesticide poisoning. Killdeer are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. 

Greening Up The Mountains is Western North Carolina’s longest-running festival, in 2019 celebrating its 22nd year. This is the first time the town has had to incorporate killdeer conservation into its event planning, but it might not be the last — it’s common for killdeer to return to the same nesting spot year after year. 

Dowling said she’s happy for the town to play host to the pair but questions the timing of their family planning. The Smoky Mountain News could not reach the killdeer for comment as to why they didn’t check the town calendar before starting their nest, so the paper asked Dowling for her thoughts on the issue. 

“I don’t know,” she said. “We’ve done this 22 years.”

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