May/June 2009For Wildlife Watchers: Killdeer by Rob Simbeck, photography by Michael Foster
Our house sits in a big, unruly yard with pockets of underbrush edging woods and a pasture. Birds love it. They roost in the cedars and use the sweet gum as a waystation when they approach the feeders. The hedges and thickets provide plenty of cover. The battered trunks of a few dead trees draw the pileated woodpeckers, and there are enough seeds, berries and insects to keep everybody happy.
Nesting sites and materials are everywhere. We've got boxes for the bluebirds, chickadees and titmice, bushes for the sparrows and cardinals, and sturdier trees for the blue jays, robins and crows. The wrens search out old coffee cans, flower pots or apron pockets in the shed.
For many years our driveway, which is a tenth of a mile long, was the chosen spot for the killdeer. Each spring, they would scout the gravel until finally we would see one or the other sitting among the pebbles, and we knew we had a nest.
A killdeer nest is simply a spot on the ground - in this and many other cases, on gravel. There may be a little depression, but otherwise it's just speckled eggs blending beautifully with their surroundings. Even knowing where they were, it was often difficult to pick them out. We took great pains to give them a wide berth, swerving well into the lawn as we passed the spot, and they would learn anew each year that we were trustworthy. They had plenty of advance warning - nesting in the open gives killdeer a good view of the approach from every direction, so it's difficult for predators - or people, in cars or otherwise - to get the jump on them.
The parents share incubation chores, protecting the vulnerable eggs with a bit of acting that might make DeNiro proud. When a potential predator draws near, an adult killdeer will head away from the nest and feign a broken wing, dragging it on the ground, limping, flapping and emitting distress calls, making itself look as pitiful as possible as it hobbles along. It looks like an easy target and generally draws predators toward itself and away from the nest, staying just out of reach until finally it takes off, crying loudly.
Non-predators like cows or horses, which might nonetheless step on the pale, blotched eggs, prompt another tactic. The killdeer will fluff itself up and hold its tail over its head as it runs at the animal, trying to get it to change course.
Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus ("Noisy plover")
Description: 8 to 11 inches long; 18 to 20 inches wingspan; double breast band; brown back and wings, orange rump.
Range and Habitat: Farmland, fields, closely mowed areas. Most of North America.
Reproduction: Nests on open ground, often on gravel.
Viewing Tips: Grassy and graveled areas around farms, ponds, lakes, suburban areas. Listen for "dee-dee" call.
Killdeer eggs incubate much longer than those of many other birds - 24 to 26 days, versus 12 to 14 for robins - and hatchlings emerge from their eggs, which are proportionally larger than those of similar-sized birds, already able to walk. As you might expect, an open nest means killdeer young have to hit the ground running. They follow their parents around as they learn to eat, looking a little ungainly on stiltlike legs. Should a predator threaten, the young will remain motionless as the parents take up the crippled bird ploy.
The young rely on their parents for general protection from the elements as well, sitting under their wings in the sun, cold or rain. Still, life is uncertain. Killdeer are prey to cats and dogs, raccoons, skunks, possums, coyotes, foxes, snakes, gulls, crows and ravens.
They can be found in much of North America, and the northernmost of them do migrate, wintering as far south as northern South America. Killdeer are relatively common in agricultural areas and in suburbs, where they sometimes nest on the gravel roofs of buildings. They can also be found in plowed fields, golf courses and other closely mowed areas, large vacant lots and airports. They eat insects, including many pests, and probe with their bills for grubs, worms and berries as well.
The killdeer is actually a shorebird, the largest of the ringed plovers and the only one in its range with a double band on its white breast. It has a brown back and wings, an orange rump and a brown cap over a white forehead, with pinkish legs, a red eye ring and a short, thick, dark bill. The sexes look alike, and, at 8 to 11 inches long, they have wingspans of 18 to 19 inches.
The name is a reference to their call - the deer or dee is a common sound where they are present. The call can be heard when males claim nesting territory by flying over it. Courtship may involve a flight or a posturing display on the ground, where the male crouches, leaning to one side, dropping its wings, with its tail fanned open and held high. They can breed at a year old and can breed twice in a year in southern latitudes.
Early in U.S. history, killdeer were hunted, as were other shorebirds, for food and sport. By 1900, they had become scarce, particularly in the eastern U.S. Since then, with protection, they are again abundant. Where they're present, they're hard to miss - they mix well with humans, they're both noisy and visible, and their performing skills make them particularly interesting and welcome additions to any neighborhood.