Killdeer and a Specialized Behavior

By Dave Hanks

AGONISTIC BEHAVIOR is the result of a conflict of emotions. There is the fear of danger, and a resulting urge to flee; however, if one has something one needs to protect, the emotion to stay and confront the danger is there also. This emotional conflict results in strange behaviors in different species. The Killdeer is a classic example of this behavior. It is not likely that the bird is thinking that its broken wing act will lead a predator away from its nest – it’s just an automatic response, and it is very effective. At a safe distance from the nest, the protective emotion is released and the Killdeer now has no compunction about fleeing from danger.

Killdeer nest on the ground. Perhaps in a pasture, along an unpaved roadway, but especially where there are patches of gravel - and the species readily accepts human modified habitats. Gravel can conceal a nest so well that you could step on it without seeing it. The eggs blend in extremely well with the pebbles. The eggs, usually four, are twice the size of Robin eggs, and the chicks, when hatched, are precocial and look like miniature adults. They come out of the eggs fully feathered, eyes open, and off to the “races”. They are darling and very loveable.

This bird’s name is acquired from the sound of its call (kill-dee), which is unmistakable as it wafts across fields, wetlands, mudflats, and gravel bars. This 8 to 11 inch bird is a member of the Plover family and is our area’s most common shorebird. It is migratory and winters as far south as northern South America.

We often encounter this species in campgrounds where there are lawns and water close at hand. They also nest in our pasture that is located just behind our cattle corrals. This bird is to me, and not the Robin, the true harbinger of spring. When I get outside on a spring morning and hear that unforgettable call, it gives me a definite feeling that spring has arrived !

(A Killdeer on its nest)