The Courageous Killdeer Bird

one single adult killdeer bird sitting on a clutch of eggs
Photo Credit
Angie Oxley

Fascinating Facts About the Killdeer Bird

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“Ki-deah! Ki-deah!” You’ll hear this loud, piercing call before seeing the small, graceful bird flying above. The killdeer can be found all over North America from spring onward. Listen to their unusual call and learn about this odd bird’s famous “broken wing” display, nesting habits (what nest?!), and odd habits.

Where Do Killdeer Live? Everywhere!

The Return of the Killdeer may not be Hollywood-sequel material. Still, for those who keep a close eye on their local baseball field, golf course, horse pasture, airport, suburban backyard, or even public parking lot, killdeer will be coming to a place near you! 

Once you can identify the killdeer, you’ll find they’re a common sight in and around towns. Killdeer are about the size of a robin, and like robins, we often see them on the ground.

Graceful in flight and handsome in appearance, with a rusty-red tail and a series of black-and-white bands around the neck and head, you’ll most often see the killdeer 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 residents of our coasts and mudflats. But unlike most of its relatives, the killdeer breeds throughout the continent, often far from water. They’re at home anywhere. Yes, he’s a shorebird as comfortable away from water as in water!

John James Audubon's depiction of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
John James Audubon’s depiction of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)

Why Is it Called a Killdeer?

No, these birds do not kill deer! They’re named after their call, which sounds a bit like “kill-deer.” (This is similar to the chick-a-dee, also named after the sound of its call.)

The killdeer most often calls in this high, repetitive way when flying above, often just communicating with other birds; they are a very vocal species. Some folks think the call sounds sad or eerie. Some think it sounds like a leaky balloon! Rest assured that their screech does not mean they’re upset. They have a different call for warnings!

See what you think. Check out this audio clip from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

No Nest!

The killdeer makes no nest at all! The bird lays 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. In fact, the killdeer seems very tolerant of humans. Unlike most birds, when humans are too close by, the killdeer will often run away first rather than fly off. And this leads to one of the killdeer’s most distinctive behaviors…

The Broken Wing Display

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 most pitifully. (For one of many home videos of the act, try this.) Yes, he’s faking an injury! 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.
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 up spread 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 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.

Two newly hatched killdeers get their bearings while the adult removes their eggshells. Photograph by Len Medlock
Two newly hatched killdeers get their bearings while the adult removes their eggshells.
Photograph by Len Medlock

Even close 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 that almost immediately can run at great speed—will warm even the wintry heart. 

Discover more unique birds and bird sounds!

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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