Feathered Friends

The Killdeer: Thespian of the Gravel Parking Lot

Story and Drawing by Spike Knuth, Contributing Columnist


The medium-sized, 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 U.S. , 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 sandpipers.

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 construction sites.

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 Virginia , they are commonly found all winter. They breed all over the United States , southern Canada , and northern Mexico .

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 position.

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 United States , and along Mexican coasts and northern South America .


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