Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Killdeer are small shorebirds who do not, in fact, kill deer. Their name is a reference to the sound of their call, and is really a bit of a stretch. Eighteenth-century naturalists, in recognition of how noisy killdeer are, gave them names such as the chattering plover and the noisy plover. Naming something for its sound uses a convention called onomatopoeia, literally “imitation of a sound.” Several members of the nightjar family, including the whip-poor-will, Chuck-will's-widow, and common poorwill, are named for the sound of their loud, repetitious nocturnal songs. Some others with onomatopoeic names include the bobwhite, the chickadee, and the great kiskadee. Aretas Saunders, self-proclaimed naturalist and bird song enthusiast, as well as Fellow of the American Ornithologists Union, gave the following excellent description of killdeer vocalizations in the early 1900s:

“The calls are mainly of three sorts. The first is the common call heard when one approaches one or more birds, or the vicinity of a nest; 'dee dee dee dee-ee kildee dee-ee,' etc. the notes usually slurred slightly upward at the end, at least the longer ones. A second call is the long trilled 't-rrrrrrrrrrrrrr,' often heard when the nest or young are threatened, and when the birds are fighting or displaying. The third call is one from which the bird evidently has derived its name. It is usually indulged by birds flying about in the air in loose flocks, particularly early in the morning or toward evening. A number of observers or writers on the notes of this species seem not to have separated this call from the first one. It differs always by the fact that the notes slur downward, instead of upward, on the end. I should write it 'kildeeah kildeeah kildeeah,' at least in those forms where the first note is lower in pitch than the second. It is often rendered, however, when the first note is highest in pitch, when it sounds more like 'keedeeah keedeeah.'“

Across most of North America, the killdeer is a familiar species, thanks to the open habitats it prefers and its loud calls, which give it not only its common names, but its scientific species name too, vociferus: from the Latin, vox, meaning ‘shouting’ or ‘crying.’ The genus name Charadrius, derives from the Ancient Greek kharadrios, a bird found in ravines and river valleys (kharadra meaning ‘ravine’).

The killdeer is the largest of the ringed plovers, a group that includes the piping and Wilson's plovers. Although classified as a shorebird, this conspicuous species is often found in areas far from water – similar to other shorebirds such as the mountain plover or long-billed curlew. One of the easiest ways to identify a killdeer is by the two horizontal black stripes that accent its white breast like a necklace. The birds range between 8 and 11 inches in length with a wingspan of about 18 inches, and most weigh no more than a few ounces – and are especially slender and lanky, with a long, pointed tail and long wings. Like most shorebird species, killdeer have cryptic coloration to better camouflage with their surroundings. They are brownish-tan with rufous fringes on top. The breast and belly are white, with the exception of those two black bands. Killdeer have the characteristic large, round head, large eye, and short bill of all plovers. They have a black cap, a white forehead, a white stripe behind the eye, and a red eye ring. The rest of the face is mostly brown. The bright orange-buff rump is conspicuous in flight. The tail is also mostly brown. The female's mask and breast bands tend to be browner than those of the male. In flight, a white wing stripe at the base of the flight feathers is visible.

Once you can identify the killdeer, you'll find that they're a fairly common sight. As a shorebird you can see without going to the beach, killdeer are found frequently on open ground with low vegetation (or no vegetation at all), such as lawns, pastures, plowed fields, golf courses, athletic fields, gravel-covered roofs, driveways, and parking lots – as well as the usual sandbars, mudflats, lake shores, tide pools, and shorelines. They inhabit North, Central, and parts of South America. Depending upon the population, killdeer can be year-round residents or "leapfrog" migrants. Populations in the northern United States and Canada migrate south each year to escape harsh winter weather, passing right over nonmigratory populations, such as those in the southern U.S. Killdeer occur year-round along much of the Pacific Coast, lower elevations of the Rockies, and across the southern United States, then well into Mexico, as well as the Caribbean, Ecuador, and Peru.

Killdeer find their food using visual cues. Typically, they dash a short distance, stop to seize prey, then run onward in search of the next tidbit. In shallow water, they’ll also pat the ground with one foot to stir up prey, pecking at anything stirred up – a practice called ‘foot-trembling.’ They feed primarily on invertebrates, such as earthworms, snails, crayfish, spiders, centipedes, grasshoppers, beetles, and aquatic insect larvae. An opportunistic forager, the killdeer has been observed eating seeds left in agricultural lands, hunting frogs, and scavenging dead minnows. They’ll also follow tractors, in search of prey turned up by the plow. They primarily feed during the day but, when the moon is full (or close to full), they’ll occasionally forage at night. – likely because of the increased insect abundance and reduced predation during the night.

A well-known denizen of dry habitats, the killdeer is actually a very proficient swimmer – even in swift-flowing water. Although common around human habitation, killdeer are often shy at first, typically running away rather than flying. When they stop to look at an intruder, they have a habit of bobbing up and down, looking a bit like a case of the hiccups. When startled, they break into flight and circle overhead, calling repeatedly. Their flight is rapid, with stiff, intermittent wingbeats. Outside of the breeding season, these birds are often solitary. Though they live alone, they’re not territorial or aggressive towards others of their kind. Sometimes they congregate in areas with lots of food, but they usually disperse after a short period. They also sometimes take advantage of a small flock to sleep, which they do standing, usually on one foot. Someone is always awake in these flocks to keep watch.

The breeding season occurs from mid-March to August, with egg-laying in the northern portion of the range occurring a bit on the later side. In Puerto Rico, and possibly other Caribbean islands, breeding occurs year-round. To start off the season, killdeer couples reunite and perform both aerial and ground displays as a duo. During flight displays, both birds hover high in the air or make short, butterfly-like flights on stiff wings with slow wingbeats, calling frequently. On the ground, the pair displays to each other by bowing with fanned tails. They choose their territory based on the best feeding opportunities nearby, and they choose a nest site through a behavior called the ‘scrape ceremony.’ The male scrapes away a shallow spot in several locations, until the female accepts one, which she shows by switching spots with the male. The male may make several scrapes not too far away from each other before the female chooses one to lay in. This duplication may help to confuse predators. They lay their eggs right out in the open on gravelly or sandy ground. The nest itself is really just the scrape, though some pairs may line it with small rocks, shells, or sticks, particularly after egg laying begins. Some typical sites are driveways, construction sites, farm fields, parking lots, and even gravel roofs. Killdeer nests are always well-camouflaged, and the four heavily speckled eggs blend in perfectly with their surroundings. Often, it can be difficult to pick them out from their pebbly background, even from only a few feet away. Approached by a person, dog, or other predator, a killdeer will startle up from its eggs, letting one wing hang down as though broken, and limp away in the most pitiful manner. In addition to their broken-wing tactics, both parents will pretend to brood in other nearby areas, another type of distraction display. While the impressive acting of the broken-wing display is useful for predators, it’s less effective for hoofed animals that might accidentally trample the nest. For this, the killdeer attempts to intimidate by fluffing itself up, fanning its tail over its head, and running headlong at the intruder.

Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for 22 to 28 days. In very hot climates, adults shade the eggs in mid-day, and may even soak their belly feathers to help cool the eggs. Killdeer chicks hatch with eyes open, with a full coat of buffy down feathers. They can walk out of the nest as soon as their feathers dry. As soon as this happens, both parents lead them out of the nest, generally to a feeding territory with dense vegetation where the chicks can hide when a predator is near. Chicks are guarded by both parents, but feed themselves. About 53% of eggs are lost, mainly to predators. Up to five replacement clutches might be laid, and occasionally two broods occur, generally in warmer climates. The young fledge around a month old, and will remain under their parents’ care for a week or two after fledging. Young killdeer only have one breast band, and can easily be mistaken for smaller plover species. Breeding starts after one year of age. Killdeer pairs are monogamous and will sometimes stay together for several years. The oldest recorded killdeer was at least 10 years, 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Kansas.

Since killdeer adapt well to human habitats, they remain a common and widespread species in many areas. Because these birds are none too picky about their habitats and have a vast range, habitat destruction causes minimal damage for them. The IUCN lists these birds as Least Concern. They’re great for the farms and pastures that they live in because they eat a variety of harmful crop pests, including several species of weevils (alfalfa, cotton boll, clover, rice, white pine), locusts, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and various kinds of beetles. Also lots of mosquito larvae.

This proximity to human populations carries some risks, though. Pesticide poisoning poses a major threat, since killdeer forage on lawns and other open spaces that are often sprayed with toxins. Although DDT has been banned in the United States, other toxic chemicals are still in use, such as neonicotinoids, chlorpyrifos, and glyphosate. They are also vulnerable to collisions with buildings and cars, since nesting birds are attracted to the gravel of parking lots, driveways, etc. In addition, mowing equipment can damage nests and kill or injure young, as well as disturbing breeding birds.

If you startle a nesting killdeer near your home this summer, take a few minutes to unobtrusively determine the exact location. Later, you can mark the spot with a small flag so as to avoid disturbing it. The eggs take less than a month to hatch, and as soon as they do, the parents lead the chicks to a more protected area, so they won’t be in the way for long.

Where I learned about killdeer, and you can too!

The Cornell Lab: All About Birds


American Bird Conservancy

Animals Network

IUCN Red List

Birds by Bent

Everyday Wanderer