• Christopher Stephens, MSc

The Killdeer: A Deceptive Plover

Updated: Jun 23

Widely Distributed Shorebird has Strange Survival Tricks

Native to the Americas is a distinctive shorebird known as the Killdeer. A large, banded member of the plover family, the Killdeer is a shorebird, related to sandpipers, oystercatchers, avocets and stilts and more distantly to gulls, terns and puffins.

The Killdeer stands out with its striking appearance which includes red eyes, banded plumage with alternating tawny, white, buff and brown banding plus a cinnamon colored rump patch visible in flight. The bird's call, a loud "Kill-dee" is the origin of the somewhat perplexing name given to this species. Needless to say this bird certainly would not kill a deer!

Distributed widely across North America, Central America and the Caribbean with occurrences in Northern and North-western South America, the Killdeer makes use of an impressive variety of habitats. Lake shores, sandy and rocky beaches, sports fields, large yards, golf courses and farm fields may all attract the attention of foraging Killdeer. For nesting, an area of bare ground where excess vegetation, predators and tramplers pose a lesser threat is favored. This might be one of the reasons Killdeer sometimes nest on gravel roofs!

Occurring year round or living as a migrant depending on latitude, the Killdeer has three subspecies: C. v. vociferus, the nominate subspecies, which occurs from Alaska south to wintering grounds in South America, C. v. ternominatus, native to the Caribbean, and C. v. peruvianus, restricted to Euador, Peru, and Chile.

Not a sandpiper but a plover, the Killdeer can be distinguished from a sandpiper by a number of features that include its stubbier bill and bold banding. The Killdeer is known for being a living alarm system, often being the first to vocalize and warn other birds of a predator's arrival. Birders know that a Killdeer's call may prompt other species to flush.

Most impressive is the elaborate ruse and distraction display this plover uses to defend its nest. Upon arrival of a predator, a Killdeer may deploy an impressive imitation of a bird with a broken wing, dragging the wing and calling plaintively. A predator will see an easy meal and try to catch the Killdeer, which will lead the predator on a deceptively easy wild goose chase or rather, wild Killdeer chase. The Killdeer then "recovers" and flies off once the nest has been removed from the predator's focus.

Under select circumstances, the Killdeer will forgo the broken wing trick and simply charge the intruder. Such an attack can result in the bird's death, so it is a much riskier proposition than the broken wing display.


 © 2020 by Christopher M. Stephens Consulting & Writing

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