The killdeer is somewhat peculiar.
Although they are classified as shorebirds, you can see them just about everywhere, from parking lots to golf courses, large lawns and just about everywhere grass is kept low, or is nonexistent.
I would guess that most people have seen killdeer before as they are quite common.
When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs, I did a tremendous amount of exploring at all hours of the days and nights. I remember vividly seeing killdeer running around in large parking lots at night, running along the asphalt letting out their familiar calls of “kill-deer,” and “deet, deet, deet,” repeated in succession.
When running — something they do more than flying — killdeer will lean forward as if to gain more aerodynamics, then, upon stopping abruptly, will crane their necks upward to get a good look around.
When startled, killdeer usually fly just high and far enough to get clear of a perceived danger.
Killdeer also have a way of distracting predators — the “broken-wing” act — which is not unique to this species.
I’ve happened upon several nests in my lifetime, and witnessed the broken-wing act many times. During the act, a bird flutters along the ground with a wing hanging to the side in a show of injury, luring intruders away from its nest. Oddly enough, this is often how I discover that the bird has a nest nearby.
The bird which I am featuring in my photos had built a nest this past spring in a turnaround area of a wildlife refuge I often visit. As I was turning the steering wheel of my car, the bird seemed to come out of nowhere and run out of the way.
I quickly realized the killdeer may have been on a nest, and jerked the steering wheel as hard to the left as possible. Afterward, I got out thinking I may have just destroyed a nest.
I located the nest and all its eggs were intact, much to my relief. I noted that my car’s front tire came within one inch of the nest. One inch! I alerted refuge staff of the nest — then had to show them how close my tire came to destroying it — so they put a traffic cone near the nest to prevent disaster. The bird later successfully hatched the eggs.
For a plover, the killdeer is fairly large at 8 to 11 inches in length.
It is brown above, and white below. The head is rather bulbous, and eyes are large. The wings are long, as is the tail.
The best way to distinguish killdeer from other plovers is the two black breast bands (photo), one of which goes all the way around the neck.
Young birds have similar coloring, but are covered in down feathers.
The killdeer’s permanent range includes all of Oklahoma, the southern half of the United States and much of Mexico. During the breeding season, the range extends north covering the entire United States, and most of Canada, eh!
Open areas such as mud flats, grazed fields, parking lots, ball fields, golf courses, and even airports.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that killdeer are most often found near water of some sort, even if it is just a lawn sprinkler.
Killdeer eat a variety of insects and other invertebrates such as beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, earthworms, caterpillars, snails, crawfish and and aquatic insects and their larvae, and also spiders.
Killdeer nest in shallow scrapes in the ground among open habitats. They prefer to nest among small rocks, but I have seen some nests in short grass.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, females will lay from four to six eggs — however, all the nests I’ve ever seen had four — which are incubated for three to four weeks.
Upon hatching, chicks go through a short drying time, then are able to walk around with their parents.
Odds and ends
- Sometimes, such as when livestock approach a nest, a killdeer will often puff up with wings out and run toward the animal to give it reason to veer off of its intended course, according to the Cornell Lab.
Editor’s Note: Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.