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Killdeer

Charadrius vociferus ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: CHARADRIIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A shorebird you can see without going to the beach, Killdeer are graceful plovers common to lawns, golf courses, athletic fields, and parking lots. These tawny birds run across the ground in spurts, stopping with a jolt every so often to check their progress, or to see if they’ve startled up any insect prey. Their voice, a far-carrying, excited kill-deer, is a common sound even after dark, often given in flight as the bird circles overhead on slender wings.

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Yard Map Birds Eye View

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.9–11 in
20–28 cm
Wingspan
18.1–18.9 in
46–48 cm
Weight
2.6–4.5 oz
75–128 g
Relative Size
Similar in size to American Robin, but with longer legs and wings.
Other Names
  • Pluvier kildir (French)
  • Playero sabanero, Chorlito tildio (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Killdeer get their name from the shrill, wailing kill-deer call they give so often. Eighteenth-century naturalists also noticed how noisy Killdeer are, giving them names such as the Chattering Plover and the Noisy Plover.
  • Gravel rooftops attract Killdeer for nesting, but can be dangerous places to raise a brood. Chicks may be unable to leave a roof because of high parapets and screened drain openings. Adults eventually lure chicks off the roof, which can be dangerous – although one set of chicks survived a leap from a seven-story building.
  • The Killdeer’s broken-wing act leads predators away from a nest, but doesn’t keep cows or horses from stepping on eggs. To guard against large hoofed animals, the Killdeer uses a quite different display, fluffing itself up, displaying its tail over its head, and running at the beast to attempt to make it change its path.
  • A well-known denizen of dry habitats, the Killdeer is actually a proficient swimmer. Adults swim well in swift-flowing water, and chicks can swim across small streams.
  • The male and female of a mated pair pick out a nesting site through a ritual known as a scrape ceremony. The male lowers his breast to the ground and scrapes a shallow depression with his feet. The female then approaches, head lowered, and takes his place. The male then stands with body tilted slightly forward, tail raised and spread, calling rapidly. Mating often follows.
  • Killdeer lay their eggs into an empty nest but add other materials later on. Some of these items they pick up as they are leaving and toss over their shoulder into the nest. In one nest in Oklahoma, people found more than 1,500 pebbles had accumulated this way.
  • The oldest known Killdeer was 10 years 11 months old.

Habitat


Grassland

Killdeer inhabit open areas such as sandbars, mudflats, and grazed fields. They are probably most familiar around towns, where they live on lawns, driveways, athletic fields, parking lots, airports, and golf courses. Generally the vegetation in fields inhabited by Killdeer is no taller than one inch. You can find Killdeer near water, but unlike many other shorebirds, they are also common in dry areas.

Food


Insects

Feeds primarily on invertebrates, such as earthworms, snails, crayfish, grasshoppers, beetles, and aquatic insect larvae. Follows farmers' plows in hopes of retrieving any unearthed worms or insect larvae. Will also eat seeds left in agricultural lands. An opportunistic forager, Killdeer have been observed hunting frogs and eating dead minnows.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
1.5 in
3.8 cm
Egg Width
1.1 in
2.7 cm
Incubation Period
22–28 days
Egg Description
Buff-colored, heavily marked with blackish-brown.
Condition at Hatching
Killdeer chicks hatch with a full coat of buffy down feathers and a single black breast band. They can walk out of the nest as soon as their feathers dry.
Nest Description

Nest is a shallow depression scratched into the bare ground, typically 3-3.5 inches across. After egg-laying begins, Killdeer often add rocks, bits of shell, sticks, and trash to the nest. Curiously, these items tend to be light colored, and this tendency was confirmed in one experiment that gave Killdeer the choice between light and dark sticks.

Nest Placement

Ground

Killdeer nests are simple scrapes often placed on slight rises in their open habitats. Killdeer may make several scrapes not far away from each other before choosing one to lay in. The duplication may help to confuse predators.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Often seen in dry, flat landscapes, running and halting on the ground in search of insects and earthworms. Although the Killdeer is common around human habitation it is often shy, at first running away rather than flying. When a Killdeer stops to look at an intruder, it has a habit of bobbing up and down almost as if it had hiccupped. Near the nest, Killdeer distract predators by calling loudly, bobbing, and running away. Killdeer are some of the best-known practitioners of the broken-wing display, an attempt to lure predators away from a nest by feigning injury. Pairs of Killdeer tend to stay together for one to a few years.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Killdeer populations have been declining by about 1 percent per year from 1966 to 2010 (resulting in a cumulative decline of 36 percent), and even more in Canada, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. These birds are found throughout the year in North America, Canada being host to mostly breeding birds. They can also be found in Central America and parts of South America. The Killdeer is one of the most successful of all shorebirds because of its fondness for human modified habitats and its willingness to nest close to people. Because they live so close to people, however, they are vulnerable to pesticide poisoning and collisions with cars and buildings.

Credits

Range Map Help

Killdeer Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident or medium-distance migrant. Some northern birds spend the winter in Mexico. In the southern United States and Pacific coast, Killdeer are year-round residents.

Backyard Tips

Doesn’t visit feeders, but if your backyard or neighborhood contains expansive, cultivated lawns or grazed fields then you could find Killdeer foraging on your property.

Find This Bird

Killdeer are surprisingly unobtrusive even on green lawns, despite their warm tawny coloration. Look carefully over lawns, short-mown fields, and even parking lots, and listen for the far-carrying kill-deer. (When you hear this call, the bird may be in flight. Look for it circling you, flying stiffly on long, pointed wings. It may resemble an American Kestrel, at least until it lands on the ground and begins walking.) Though they're often found on dry land, you should also look for them on the edges of freshwater ponds and muddy lagoons.

Get Involved

You can help scientists learn more about this species by participating in the Celebrate Urban Birds! project.

Report observations of nesting birds to NestWatch

You Might Also Like

Visit the NestCams archives to watch killdeer at their nest.

Q & A: What to Do with a Lost Baby Killdeer

A Naturalist's Notebook: Displaying Killdeer, Living Bird, summer 2013