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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 1997

Killdeer. Photo by Scott Nielsen, ©1998

A call from above

The killdeer's loud cry and "busted wing" act make for a shoreline floor show.

Anita Carpenter

The thawing countryside welcomes many spring migrants. Great flocks of red-winged blackbirds and grackles gather and squawk out territorial claims. Robins join the mass movement. Song sparrows arrive under cover of darkness while small flocks of killdeer suddenly appear on park lawns. Killdeer are familiar birds, easily observed scurrying around searching for food or flying overhead, calling out their killdeer name.

Killdeer belong to the shorebird family of plovers, the Charadridae (car-ah-DRY-ih-dee). Like all plovers, killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) have compact, chubby bodies, thick necks and large eyes on a dovelike head. Their short, thick bills are swollen at the tip.

Plover wings are short, rounded and, when folded at rest, are not much longer than the bird. The plovers have only three toes on each foot with little webbing between the toes. Killdeer are larger than other North American plovers and have two prominent black bands across their snowy white chests. Dark, earth-tone brown backs camouflage killdeer when they sit on their ground-level nests. Males and females are dressed alike.

Killdeer get serious about nesting from April into May. Typically, they nest far from the water, but often near human habitation. Suitable nest sites on an open scrape give the incubating adults an extensive view to search for predators. The site usually includes gravel, cinders or stones, which camouflage the four speckled eggs. The male prepares several scrapes or shallow depressions in the ground. The female selects one to her liking. Both birds take turns incubating the buff-colored eggs for 25 days.

Killdeer nests are devilishly difficult to find, even though the adults are easy to see. Long before an intruder arrives, the incubating bird slips off the nest and runs, disappearing into the surrounding cover. The adult either waits for the intruder to pass and then scampers back to the nest, or it circles around and approaches the nest from behind.

When hatching time nears, the adult is more reluctant to leave the nest, but will do so when danger is imminent. To protect the nest, the adult will feign injury by performing a broken wing act. It drags one wing on the ground and spreads its tail to reveal a rusty red rump to distract would-be predators. Crying plaintively, the "crippled" bird lures the predator farther and farther from the vulnerable nest. Once danger is past, the adult snaps to attention and runs off or flies away, leaving the befuddled intruder behind. The adult killdeer returns to its nest when the intruder is gone.

Awake and wet upon hatching, the down-covered youngsters are up and running as soon as they dry, following their parents and learning the ways of killdeer life. The doting parents are ever-watchful for predators and will utter one or two short call notes if danger nears. The young instinctively hunker down and freeze or run in the opposite direction from their parents. When the threat has passed, the adult calls softly and the youngsters come running, often to huddle under the parents' wings.

As the young birds grow, their fluffy down is replaced by feathers. The young killdeer have just one black chest band. By their second spring, the young have the smooth feathers and two black bands of adult birds.

Killdeer are the first shorebirds to return in the spring and the last to depart in the fall. After raising two broods in the spring and summer, killdeer gather in small groups and leave starting in August into September. Some hardy individuals linger until the nastier fall or winter weather forces them south.

Killdeer are so common that we tend to overlook them, but when the unmistakable shrill "killdeer" cry echoes from the sky, we stop and take note. The birds are arriving now. Keep your ears tuned to the sky.

Anita Carpenter watches the killdeer perform in and around Oshkosh, Wis.