This Sacramento-area high school’s football field won’t open on time — thanks to some birds

Protected bird nest closes Sacramento high school football field

The football field at Rio Americano High School is temporarily closed, Thursday, April 4, 2019, after a killdeer bird laid her eggs on the artificial turf.
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The football field at Rio Americano High School is temporarily closed, Thursday, April 4, 2019, after a killdeer bird laid her eggs on the artificial turf.

Rio Americano High School might want to change its mascot from the Raiders to the nesting birds.

That’s because a pair of killdeers, a type of small shore plover, have taken up residence with their four eggs in the end zone of a new track and field at the San Juan Unified high school in the Wilhaggin section of Arden Arcade.

The facility was set to open for a lacrosse game Tuesday, but when construction workers finalizing the artificial turf discovered the family of birds in late March, they immediately erected a protective barrier and contacted experts to determine whether the killdeers required special treatment.

Rio’s principal, Brian Ginter, said that game will have to wait.

“The bird showed up, and we’ll just let it do it’s thing and then we’ll use the field when we can,” Ginter said.

The incubation period for the killdeer is 24 to 28 days, according to local birdwatching expert David Yee, and killdeers don’t receive legal protections like an endangered or threatened species would.

Yee added that killdeers are an exceptional type of shore bird because they are one of the only from the species that will nest “anywhere and everywhere,” even in a place filled with hard hats and heavy equipment.

Rio Americano’s field lies just on the other side of the levee from the American River, and may have looked like a perfect nesting spot for the bird family, according to Yee. Killdeers like the open, and the short artificial grass and cork combination used to make the turf field is ideal for a bird that typically looks for “some kind of coarse texture” in which to rest their eggs, Yee said.

Since the construction timeline for the track and field, which will host a variety of sports including football, had been pushed back before the killdeer showed up, spring sports teams already made arrangements to practice at El Camino Fundamental High School. They will continue to do so until the eggs are hatched and the birds leave, officials said.

“Although we’d like to get out here, we think its important to respect the fact that the bird has eggs there,” said Frank Camarda, an assistant facilities superintendent for San Juan Unified Schools. He said district and school officials agreed protecting the eggs was the right thing to do “and that we do everything we can to do” to let nature take its course.

And that time is a little longer than most birds that nest in trees, Yee said. This is because once killdeer eggs hatch, the baby birds can start running around immediately, like chickens, whereas if they had hatched on the shorter time frame, they would be completely dependent on the parents for two weeks. Yee said this means Rio Americano can expect the killdeers to leave promptly and never come back to the nest once the eggs hatch.

Ginter expects the new athletic facility to be opened by the time students get back from spring break in two weeks.

“We’ve had parents inquire with us, because they’re very anxious, they want to get on the field,” Ginter said. “But basically with when the bird came and what the incubation period is its only a few more days’ wait so we’re just teaching students to be patient, and then we’ll use the field when we can.”

Yee called the sensitivity displayed on the part of the construction workers and administration officials “amazing” for a bird that doesn’t have any kind of special legal status. He said without the pressure of legal repercussions, development projects often move forward without regard for the habitats they are disrupting.

“It speaks well of the high school and everything that they are doing this on their own,” Yee said. “The truth is they don’t have to, the bird doesn’t have any special legal status.”

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