Birdwatch

Killdeer

A resourceful shore bird known for calling its own name

By Susan Campbell

The killdeer is a small brown and white shorebird that is now busily nesting all along the coast of North Carolina. In fact, it can actually be found here year-round in the right habitat, and it need not be all that wet. In fact, for egg laying, the drier the spot, the better! Although our sandy soil is ideal for these birds, it turns out that killdeer are widespread in North America, with most of the population living away from the water’s edge.

This robin-size bird, not surprisingly, gets its name from its call — a loud “kill-deer, kill-deer” — which can be heard day and night. During migration, individual birds frequently vocalize on the wing, high in the air. Adults will circle above their territory, calling incessantly in early spring.

On the ground, killdeer are a challenge to spot. They blend in well with the dark ground, hiding in plain sight against the mottled surface of a tilled field or a gravel surface. Killdeer employ a “run-and-stop” foraging strategy as they search for insect prey on the ground. As they run, they may sir up insects that will be quickly gobbled up as the birds come to a quick halt. Although they live in close proximity to humans, they are quite shy. Killdeer are more likely to run than fly if approached. When alarmed, they frequently use a quick head-bob or two. This may be a strategy to make the birds seem larger than they appear.

During the winter months, flocks of killdeer concentrate in open, insect-rich habitat such as ball fields, golf courses or harvested croplands. Here you may see them foraging along the water’s edge, either on the beach or the sound. But come spring, pairs will search out drier substrates, preferring sandy or rocky areas for nesting. They may even use flat gravel rooftops or — believe it or not — parking lots. The female merely scrapes a slight depression, where she lays four to six speckled eggs that blend in with the surroundings. She will sit perfectly still on her nest and incubate the eggs for three to four weeks. If disturbed by a potential predator, the female killdeer will employ distraction displays to draw the intruder away from the eggs. This may go so far as to involve feigning a broken wing; the mother bird will call loudly, and with her tail spread, to be as noticeable as possible, she will limp along dragging a wing on the ground. This “broken wing act” can be very convincing, giving the predator the idea that following the female will result in an easy meal. Once far enough from the nest, the killdeer will fly off, not returning to the eggs until she is convinced the coast is clear. Should distractions by the adults not be effective, the pair will find a new nesting location and begin again. The species is a very determined nester. Killdeer are capable of producing up to three broods in a summer.

When the eggs hatch, it will be a synchronous affair. As soon as they have dried off, the downy, long-legged young will immediately follow their mother away from the nest to a safer, more protected area nearby. They will follow her, being fed and brooded along the way, for several weeks. Once they are fully feathered, the young will have learned not only how to escape danger but how and where to find food for themselves.

So, if you hear a “kill-deer” over the next few months, stop and look closely: You may be rewarded with a peek into the summer life of this fascinating little bird.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

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