“Kill-deer. Kill-deer. Kill-deer,” calls a brown bird with two black chest bands from the stony parking lot of the winery. It looks a lot like a shorebird, which seems a little odd since you are no where near the ocean. But what really has you concerned is its behavior: the little creature is holding one wing at an odd angle and is running on its legs rather than flying off.
“Awe, poor thing. It has a broken wing,” you think and decide that perhaps you ought to catch it and take it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator before it gets hit by a car. But as you approach, the bird suddenly folds its wing back in and flies off, appearing perfectly fine.
What you’ve just encountered is a killdeer faking an injury to draw you away from its eggs, which lie somewhere in the stony parking lot. The nest is made of gravel, and 3-4 gray and brown speckled eggs are hidden by both camouflage and the bird’s ability to draw predators away by pretending to be an easy meal.
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) are the largest members of the plover family with a length of 9 to 10 inches and a wingspan of nearly 7 inches. Plovers are best known as shorebirds, but killdeer have broken out of the mold by adapting to life well away from water, living in upland fields and pastures, and bare, dry areas of wetlands. Rather than needing to probe the sand for aquatic invertebrates, killdeer are opportunistic foragers that will eat earthworms and insects, but have not deviated too far from their origins in a willingness to consume crayfish and aquatic insect larvae.
Killdeer nests are called scrapes and a breeding pair will do exactly what that implies – scraping a shallow impression in an area with little to no vegetation, including gravelly parking lots. After the female lays the eggs, the couple works together to add bits of vegetation, sticks, stones, and trash to the nest. Pairs remain together for the nesting season, with the male helping to incubate and defend the nest. Once the chicks hatch, they are led from the nest to a feeding area and stay with the parents until they are able to fly.
Though masters of faking distress, sometimes killdeer can still benefit from real help from their human friends. Sometimes people place safety cones around their nests so that the nests are kept safe from being tread on. But for the killdeer, they still have to keep an eye out for the local fox looking for an easy meal.
by Gabrielle Wheeler