Widespread, numerous, and noisy – these words describe the killdeer, Charadrius vociferus, a conspicuous, easy-to-identify member of the plover family. It is one of the noisiest of American birds, which accounts for the "vociferus" part of its scientific name. Although the killdeer is classed as a migratory species, this bird is a year-round resident of Texas, choosing a variety of habitats as home. It is found throughout the state, with the possible exception of the Panhandle during frigid winter weather. It thrives in open or semi-open areas and is at home in either dry or wet locations. An arid mesa or canyon can be as appealing as a home near a river or by a lakeshore. Plains and prairies, whether grassy or bare, and fields or pastures, whether cultivated or fallow, attract the birds as often as the marshes, beaches, bays, and lagoon flats of the coast. Killdeer also manage to live side-by-side with people, using airports, golf courses, and lawns as foraging areas. Pebbled rooftops serve as well for nest sites as dry gravel beds along creeks and rivers.

A mother killdeer sits on her nest, which is little more than a shallow depression.

When spring rolls around, the birds pair off to search for a nesting site. An ideal one, of course, would be near water, but the birds are adaptable and manage under less-than-ideal conditions. After choosing the best possible location, they find a shallow depression that can be lined with bits of grass, weeds, bark, shells, or rocks to form a crude nest. The building materials selected from the area help the nest blend into the surroundings. The female then lays four light buff or chocolate-colored eggs, blotched with black and dark brown spots.

Both nest and eggs blend into the surroundings, but the birds take no chances, guarding the nest constantly throughout the twenty-six- to twenty-eight-day incubation period. If the nest is threatened, the female is a master at the art of subterfuge. Imitating a severely injured bird, she flutters a few feet from the nest, falls flat on the ground as though hopelessly wounded, and utters piteous cries. If approached, she recovers enough to move farther from the nest, but continues to drag one or both wings on the ground as if broken. She may even roll over and gasp and pant as if completely exhausted by her efforts. Throughout the performance she continues to cry pitifully as if in pain. By spreading her tail feathers and throwing her body from side to side, she exposes a golden-red rump patch that may look like blood to the enemy. The male also may get into the act, flying around the intruder at a safe distance, screaming protests. Working as a team, they continue the performance until the intruder is lured away from the nest.

Killdeer eggs

Another diversion the birds use is the false nest act. When feeding birds are approached, one will move away, completely ignoring the enemy, and settle into a depression with all the motions associated with covering a nest of eggs. As the enemy draws near, the bird glides off to expose the empty depression. To add insult, the bird also makes a cry that sounds like a chuckle. If the enemy continues to follow, the false nest act will be repeated until the follower gets tired of looking into empty depressions and goes away.

Once the eggs hatch, the parents must transfer their protection to the young, which follow them around on long, slender legs. At the first cry of alarm, the chicks flatten themselves on the ground with their necks outstretched. Motionless, they blend into their surroundings and seem to disappear. Instinctively they seem to realize that the slightest movement could be their last. They remain in this motionless position until their parents return and voice an all-clear signal.

The female killdeer can be quite an actress when her nest is threatened.

If a curious animal that appears to offer no threat to the birds happens into the area, killdeer may gang up on it. The first one to spot it will fly almost into the animal's face while uttering loud, shrill cries. This scolding attracts others who join in just as noisily as the first. The intruder usually is intimidated by this display and retreats to more pleasant surroundings. These noisy outcries also alert other birds in the area to the presence of possible danger.

The flight of the killdeer is swift but erratic, and it seldom flies for long periods. While on the ground, the bird usually walks, but it can run with astonishing speed. When feeding, the bird runs four or five steps, stops, bobs, takes a few more steps, stops, and bobs again. At each stop, it raises its head high and checks its surroundings. This vertical movement of its head and the flashing of its black and white throat bands may startle insects into moving and betraying their location to the feeding bird. A quick jab of the beak may capture a beetle, grasshopper, earthworm, snail, spider, or even a few seeds. Its control of many insect pests makes the killdeer a beneficial bird to have around, and its antics make it an entertaining bird to watch.

Additional Information:

Ilo Hiller
1989 – Killdeer: Introducing Birds to Young Naturalists. The Louise Lindsey Merrick Texas Environment Series, No. 9, pp. 35-37. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.