Killdeer: Thespian of the Gravel Parking Lot
and Drawing by Spike Knuth, Contributing Columnist
long-legged bird looked hurt as it dragged its outstretched wing, fluttering
pitifully and calling a shrill, “dee-dee,” “kill-dee.” The closer I
walked to the edge of the big gravel parking lot, the more vociferous it
became. As I followed it, the bird struggled harder, but always stayed well
out of reach. I continued to follow, just to satisfy the bird.
A killdeer first fooled me
some 45 years ago. I learned in succeeding years that this is how the hen
leads intruders and predators from her nest. Now, each time this happens, I
almost feel obligated to let the killdeer hen think she has succeeded for
all her effort. But still, looking around trying to locate the spotted and
blotched eggs the bird is protecting, I am seldom able to find them.
The killdeer is a plover.
There are eight species of plovers in the
, the killdeer being the most common. Similar to sandpipers, plovers are
generally chunkier with shorter necks and shorter, pigeon-like bills. They
tend to feed more in open fields, pastures, along the edges of marshes and
lakes, and on mud flats, feeding off the surface rather than probing like
The killdeer’s scientific
name is Charadrius vociferous, the vociferous alluding to its shrill and
almost constant call. When calm and at rest, it utters a mild, abbreviated
“dee.” Its other common names include noisy plover, killdee, killdeer
plover, field plover, and meadow plover. While it is fond of wet places, the
killdeer is a bird of the fields, grazed meadows, pasture ponds, parks,
plowed or harvested croplands, and graded and filled roadbeds or
The killdeer measures nine
to 113⁄4 inches and is pure white below, showing two distinctive black
bands across its lower neck and upper breast. This helps distinguish it from
the single chest band of the smaller, look-alike semi-palmated plover. The
killdeer has a black band across the side of its head and a dark patch atop
its head, separated by a white forehead-and-eye strip, and it has a white
throat. Its rump is orange-brown or cinnamon to yellowish, and its back is
grayish-brown or olive-brown. In flight it shows a white stripe the length
of its opened wing.
Killdeers feed mainly on
insects and insect larvae and commonly feed on grubs and worms after a field
has been plowed or disked. They also feed on beetles, grasshoppers,
crickets, and in wet areas on crustaceans and aquatic insects. Killdeers are
alert and nervous on the ground, running about with quick steps, frequently
bobbing their heads. Their flight is swift and graceful, although erratic.
Killdeers are early
arrivals to their breeding grounds in the north, some seldom wintering very
far south. One of the most pleasant and calming sounds in the outdoors is
during that first real warm spring evening when newly arrived killdeers call
a soft “dee-dee-dee,” back and forth to each other in a plowed field
sometimes well after dark. In
, they are commonly found all winter. They breed all over the
, and northern
The killdeer’s nest is
merely a hollow or depression in the ground, lined with a few feathers and
grasses and some small pebbles, usually in the open with stones, gravel, and
dirt and tufts of vegetation nearby. Often it is built at the edges of
gravel driveways or parking lots, and on construction sites and landfills.
Low gravel-topped buildings such as schools also host nesting killdeers.
About four creamy-buff eggs, heavily blotched and streaked with black, brown
and deep lavender are laid; near perfectly camouflaged in the gravel.
Usually the hen will leave and approach the nest quietly and undetected, but
if surprised by an intruder or if someone blunders into the area, she will
go into her limping, fluttering act of agony until the intruder is far
enough away, at which time she recovers miraculously.
Incubation takes about 24
days and the downy young resemble the adults as soon as their natal down is
dry. They are precocial; that is, they are mobile almost immediately,
running about feeding on little insects. If her brood is endangered the hen
will go into her broken-wing act as the little ones hide in an almost frozen
Killdeers are hardy and
they can be seen and calls heard well into early December even in the north.
When and if they migrate, they move in small groups, occasionally with other
shorebirds, but seldom on salt water. The killdeer winters over most of the
southern half of the
, and along Mexican coasts and northern