The Sunday bird: kildeer

June 30, 2013 • 12:48 pm

In my youth, the “Sunday bird” was a roast chicken, but we can do better than that now. Showing a bird at week’s beginning isn’t yet a website tradition (though, given the number of bird-smitten readers, perhaps it should be), but I wanted to post two photos of a kildeer and her eggs contributed by our anonymous reader who lives in Idaho. He noted that she was nesting on the ground right next to where he parked his truck (click to enlarge).  In the first photo she’s defending her nest.



Kildeer (Charadrius vociferus) are denizens of the northern part of the Western hemisphere, though they winter in Central America. Their protectiveness of their young is legendary; as Wikipedia notes:

Their name comes from their frequently heard call. These birds will frequently use a distraction display (“broken-wing act”) to distract predators from their nests. This involves the bird walking away from its nesting area holding its wing in a position that simulates an injury and then flapping around on the ground emitting a distress call. The predators then think they have easy prey and are attracted to this seemingly injured bird and away from the nest. If the parent sees that a potential predator is not following them, they will move closer and get louder until they get the attention of the predator. This is repeated until the predator is far from the nest, and the killdeer suddenly “heals” and flies away.

Here’s a short but lovely video of a distraction display. Be sure to watch until the kildeer plays dead and rolls over:

Imagine the process of natural selection that produced this behavior: it involves not only walking away from the nest (something would seem maladaptive from the outset), but combining that walk with a broken-wing or death display.  There must, of course, have been genetic variation for those behaviors in the kildeer’s ancestors.

20 thoughts on “The Sunday bird: kildeer

  1. I have kildeers nest near my driveway so you have to watch for their eggs. When I worked in a park campground as a student the kildeer constantly nested in the areas where trailers went so we were always putting picnic tables over the eggs & warning people about them.

  2. When I was a kid we used to find killdeer nests this way. First you hear the distress call then you find the bird.
    If you look along a straight line back from the direction the ‘injured bird’ is going, there’s the nest.
    It doesn’t just work for nests. Sometimes we found the baby birds. Ground nesting birds seem to hatch and hit the ground running but that doesn’t mean that momma’s not still looking out for them.

  3. Willy Wagtails – an Autralian native bird – don’t nest on the ground, but they display a similar behaviour if their nests are threatened.

    The first time I saw it, I thought the bird was genuinely injured, and was baffled when I went to help it and it miraculously healed.

  4. Kildeer nest in my pasture and I’ve often seen this behavior. I don’t know how they survive, since at various times we’ve kept horses, sheep, and goats in the pasture, but through it all the birds seem to thrive. Amazing.

  5. We were in the south of France for a month last year living in a little house in the woods. The place was filled with killdeer who came out at night with a very distinctive call. Never saw one, especially after a bottle or three of plonk. But, they were fun to listen to.

  6. I have a couple dozen of these birds on my property. They seem to like the gravel roads for nesting. My grandaughter tracks down the nests and marks the spot with orange traffic cones. They really do some crazy stuff to keep you away from the eggs.

  7. I’ve seen doves and ducks do the same broken wing distraction thing.

    In 1959, I attended a control line model airplane contest in Wichita Falls, TX. We flew on grass circles which had just been mowed. One of the circles had an unmowed spot about halfway between the center pilots’ circle and the edge. There was a Killdeer nest in there, and the mama bird stayed on the eggs all day long, inspite of model airplanes with unmuffled engines flying around a few feet away.

    1. When I was a kid I wound up stepping on such a nest, while trying to find it so I could show a guy mowing the pebble-strewn field where it was so he could leave just such an unmowed spot. Still feel bad about that.

      1. Aww, too bad. Bet you aren’t the first one that’s happened to, though. I suspect the birds were able to renest.

  8. I’m an amateur ornithologist and would love to see bird postings on Sundays, Jerry.

    I’ve been following the osprey cam at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo, MT. The site also has another cam and educational content. It’s an excellent source.

    The nestlings are getting ready to fledge and it’s very exciting!!

    To fund the U. of MT Wildlife Biology Program, they’re running
    a split pot wagering contest to guess the date and time of first flight of a chick.
    Fun and Games!

  9. When my older son was about six, we went to a soccer practice and there was a killdeer couple with some babies running all around near the edge of the field.

    If you think baby chicks and baby ducks are cute, they’re nothing compared to baby killdeer. We were walking right up to the babies to look more closely at them, and the parents were going nuts.

    I took it as an opportunity to explain to my son how that amazing display where the parents faked being injured, happened because its ancestors did something similar and those that did survived better than those that didn’t. He made a comment like the ancestors who first did that must have been really smart for birds. That took us deeper, and I tried to explain how they didn’t do it because they were smart, but they just had some behavior that maybe looked to a predator that the adult was injured, and those survived better, but I’m not sure he grasped the whole beautiful concept at that age.

  10. The four eggs hatched this morning, and the chicks were up and running. I’d not seen killdeer chicks before. They’re impossibly cute — cotton balls on matchsticks — their legs the size of the adults’, but with puffy little bodies covered in new virgin feathers. Maybe I’ll get a decent photo, but I think they’re off into the barley and the grass with their parents.

    By the way, I’ve seen ducks do the broken-wing ruse. They’re good, but the killdeer are much better at it.

    Killdeer are pretty common birds. I think many interesting birds get overlooked and under-appreciated because they’re common. If robins were rare they’d be a birder’s prize sighting.

  11. Wonderful shots, Stephen, esp. that first one!

    I got some good looks at this killdeer a few weeks ago in SW Michigan:

    And have been watching a clutch of three develop down on a Lake Michigan harbor beach. Unfortunately they’re very far away, so the pics are borderline awful. And yet they still look cute:

  12. Heh. The airport where we based our plane used to have a lot of unimproved parking and taxiway areas; many’s the time our taxiing aircraft was carefully led away from a nest by a killdeer display. Had to keep tromping the brakes to avoid Killdeer Puree.

    To say nothing of the Canada goose that adopted a (paved) taxiway in Racine as its personal domain, hissing and biting our tires as we taxied past, then standing on the centerline (after we’d been ignominiously chivvied off) with its wings spread: “WHO da goose?! WHO da goose!!”

Leave a Reply