We all know some species of birds lay their eggs on the ground. They are neat to find — for once humans get a birds’-eye-view of the nesting habits of our aviary friends. But what happens when that aerie is in a hazardous spot? Say, right in your horse’s paddock or pasture? Is it possible to protect ground nests from livestock?
In all my years of horsemanship…
A couple of weeks ago I was working Malcolm at liberty in the small pasture that shares a fence with his paddock. I had been noticing more bird noises lately but hadn’t given it much thought. On this particular morning, however, the chattering was attention-grabbing.
As I connected with Malcolm at liberty down the fence line, I noticed something small running toward him. It was about the size of a baseball, brown with a striped neck, spindly legs, and — wait — was it puffing out its feathers while chattering an insistently angry trill?
At 1100-pounds and fairly brave (for a horse), Malcolm didn’t even notice. However, as a total animal nerd, I was intrigued and had to investigate. So I led Malcolm away and backtracked alone.
The bird — which I later discovered to be a Killdeer — was still there. And look, it has a buddy who was equally perturbed with my presence. A sneaking suspicion entered my brain as I perused the area, looking for the cause of all the hubbub. A couple of moments later I discovered the issue.
There was a nest on the ground, with four spotted eggs. And it was inside my horses’ paddock.
I was not prepared to protect ground nests from livstock
I’ve been taking care of, training, teaching lessons on or otherwise working with horses for nearly two decades. Coupled with EMS training and quick-thinking-under-stress skills, I can usually reason my way through most situations.
At that moment I thought,
Shit, what am I supposed to do about this?
Let me explain my train of thought. If we were in the wild, with wild horses uncontained by man-made barriers, I would be less worried. However, this little abode was situated in six inches of real estate between the fence and my horses’ normal pacing route. How it hadn’t been trampled yet, I had no clue. Especially since — in a study with artificial nests — horses are significantly more likely to trample eggs than cows are.
Like I already mentioned, I’m a bit of an animal nerd. As a general rule, moving a bird’s nest is a bad idea — I want to make sure mom (and dad, when applicable) can continue to take care of the eggs. So what did that leave, making a barrier? Did that actually work, or would it scare the parents away?
Obviously, I had to do something
A quick researching binge confirmed my initial thoughts: don’t move the nest. Because once moved, the parents can’t find the nest again, which means they won’t be able to incubate and raise the young. So unless the proper equipment and manpower are available, those eggs will die.
The better option? Protect the ground nest from livestock (much more my speed). Put a fence around the nest to keep livestock out, yet allow momma and poppa birds to fly in and care for their eggs. Some even argue a fence can also protect the nest from foxes and raccoons as well (but dude, seriously. Anyone who has tried to keep chickens in rural areas knows a roofless fence will NOT keep those nuisance animals out. But at least we can remove 1100-pounds with four threats attached).
Unfortunately in the case of my precious nest, I couldn’t construct a solid fence around it. Because it resides inches from the horse fence — which also has hotwire — building something around it would be tricky and I needed something quick.
Thankfully, because I know my galoot of a horse, I had an idea of what I could get away with.
Visual barriers can help protect ground nests from livestock, too
In this case, I didn’t need to build a solid fence, just something to deter my horse for the next two months.
Thanks to the shortage of everything everywhere, the local hardware store was out of any wooden pickets. So I snatched a few four-foot T-posts from behind the chicken coop. I hammered down three in a triangle, then “fenced” them in with trail blaze tape. The overall look is more than enough to keep Malcolm from walking onto the nest while giving mom and dad full access to their young.
(B-T-Dub, always put end caps on your T-posts when working with livestock. I got this up in a pinch, I’ll get the caps tomorrow.)
Before leaving, I watched the nest from a distance to see if the obnoxious orange tape would deter the parents from taking care of the nest. Within minutes one of them was back, resting on the eggs without concern. Whew. I’ll add “how to protect ground nests from livestock” to my experience repertoire.
And as a second-generation homeschooling mom, I’m going to involve the kids. Monitoring the nest will be our little pre-K summer project: the early life cycle of Killdeers.
Been there, done that, got advice to share? Comment below!
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