The Courageous Killdeer

Fascinating Facts About the Killdeer Bird

April 27, 2021
Killdeer HGW

Ki-deah! ki-deah! You’re bound to hear this loud, piercing bird call before you see the small graceful bird flying above. The bird is called the killdeer and it can be found all over North America from spring onward. Learn more about the curious killdeer, its famous “broken wing” display, its nesting habits (what nest?!), and its unusual call.

Where They Live—Everywhere!

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, airport, suburban backyard, or even public parking lot, killdeer are bound to be coming to a place near you! 

Once you can identify the killdeer, you’ll find that 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 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 denizens 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 who’s as comfortable away from water as in water. What an odd bird! 

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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, which is also named after the sound of its call.)

The killdeer most often calls in this high, repetitive way when they are 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 that 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 flying 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 in the most pitiful manner. (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.

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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.

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

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 even the wintriest heart. 

Discover more unique birds and bird sounds!

About This Blog

Field Notes From the Woods, written by Henry Walters, shares observations and ruminations on plants, wildlife, weather, and other facets of nature. Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac.