The straits of Panama. Early March. Our hero dons his sandy coat and lifts off, heading north, flying by night. He navigates by stars. He feels the pull of the Earth’s magnetic field. He lets forth a cry like a leaky balloon. Not Batman, not Superman, he’s…
The Return of the Killdeer may not be Hollywood-sequel material, but for those who keep a close eye on their local baseball field, golf course, horse pasture, or backyard, the arrival of this odd bird can be a thrilling moment.
One of the first migrants to return to the northern United States, the killdeer often announces himself with all the commotion of a conquering hero, flying large circles around the chosen breeding ground while uttering the distinctive ki-deah! ki-deah! that gives the bird its name. Even the most objective observer could be forgiven for translating the plaintive music into his own tongue: I’m home! I’m home!
John James Audubon’s depiction of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
Graceful in flight and handsome in appearance, with a rusty-red tail and a series of black-and-white bands around neck and head, the killdeer is most often seen speed-walking a few short, shuffling steps over open ground and then stopping suddenly, as if he’s had a thought. If his movements make you think he belongs at the beach, you’re not all wrong: the killdeer is a shorebird, a family that includes sandpipers, plovers, godwits, dowitchers, and other denizens of our coasts and mudflats. But unlike most of its relatives, the killdeer breeds throughout the continent, often far from water.
The killdeer makes no nest at all, laying its eggs right out in the open on gravelly, sandy, or otherwise disturbed ground. When it chooses a driveway, construction site, or farm field, interaction with humans is inevitable. And this leads to one of the killdeer’s most distinctive behaviors. Approached by a person, a killdeer will startle up from its eggs, tilt itself sideways, letting one wing hang down as though broken, and limp away in the most pitiful manner. (For one of many home videos of the act, try this.) The display serves as a marvelous distraction from the eggs, which are themselves ingeniously camouflaged with black-and-white speckling. Often it can be difficult to pick them out from their pebbly background, even from only a few feet away.
A killdeer performs a broken-wing display.
Amazingly, the killdeer seems to discern different threats to its nest and tailors its response accordingly. While the impressive acting of the broken-wing display is useful to lure people, dogs, and other predators away from the eggs, the bird tries other maneuvers to keep the eggs from accidental trampling by hoofed animals. Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his Life Histories of North American Birds, records the following anecdotes:
Howard Lacey (1911) noticed that a flock of driven goats divided. “I walked up to the place expecting to find a rattlesnake, and found instead a killdeer standing over her eggs with upspread wings and scolding vigorously.” Norman Criddle (1908) writes, “If the danger came from a cow or horse, the tactics were changed and the birds with both wings and feathers spread out would run into the animal’s face, and so by startling it drive the intruder away.”
If you startle a killdeer near your home this spring, and you think it may be nesting, take a few minutes to determine the exact location. Back away and allow the incubating mother (or father) to return to the eggs. Later you can mark the spot with a small flag so as to avoid disturbing it. The eggs take less than a month to hatch, and as soon as they do, the parents lead the chicks to a more protected area. Even in close proximity to human activity, the killdeer can raise two broods of three to four chicks each summer. The sight of a newly hatched killdeer—a cotton ball perched on ostrich legs, which almost immediately can run at great speed—will warm the wintriest heart.
Two newly hatched killdeers get their bearings, while the adult removes their eggshells.
Photograph by Len Medlock
Want to know what a killdeer sounds like? Check out this audio clip from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.