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Art Lander’s Outdoors: This native shorebird has a name that brings a smile to the face of deer hunters

The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) is easily identifiable by its distinctive plumage, preferred habitat, feeding behavior, shrill calls and the way adult nesting pairs lure predators away from their eggs or young.

Everything about the Killdeer is unusual, for example:

The Killdeer is common throughout Kentucky (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

• A rather large wading bird (plover), adults can be 11 inches long, with a wingspan of 23 to 25 inches. Its bill is short, thick, and dark, and its legs are long. The eyes are large and dark with a red, outer ring.

Coloration of its back and head is mostly brown with rufous fringes. The forehead is white, and there’s a white stripe behind the eye. The neck, breast and belly are white, with two black breast bands, and its tail is mostly brown. In flight a white wing stripe at the base of the flight feathers is visible.

• The Killdeer lives on the ground, usually near water, spending most of the time on gravel, bare rock or dirt, amid wooden debris and sparse vegetation, in a wide variety of habitats, both rural and urban.

This includes the exposed shorelines of lakes and ponds, cultivated and heavily-pastured agricultural lands, the corridors of gravel roads, railroad right-of-ways, industrial parks, airports, parking lots and their graveled runoff ditches, even the graveled rooftops of large buildings.

• Its feeding behavior is best described as on-the-move. The Killdeer will run a few steps and then pause, then run again, pecking at the ground whenever something edible is spotted. They may forage in newly plowed fields, feeding on grubs, and relish over-grazed pastures, picking off insects around cow pies and hay piles.

• Its call is a shrill kill-dee, kill-dee, fil-dee.

On alarm, the Killdeer’s call is a high-pitched, sputtering trill kee-di-di-di.

• To keep predators away from their eggs or young, adult Killdeers feign injury, acting as if their wings are broken, to lead away danger.

(Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Range and Distribution

In North America, the Killdeer is found throughout most of the Lower 48 states, with breeding populations as far north as western Canada, the northern Rockies, and upper Midwest, east to New England.

In Kentucky, the Killdeer is common year-round, in western and central Kentucky, with much lower populations in the forested counties of eastern Kentucky.

In late summer, large groups of Killdeers, as many as 100, may congregate at favored feeding areas.

Populations of birds in the northern half of the continent, including Kentucky, may migrate southward during cold weather, returning in the late winter or early spring, weather permitting.

Food Habits

The Killdeer feeds on a wide variety of insects, including beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and fly larvae, and also eats spiders, earthworms, centipedes, crayfish, snails, and small amounts of seed.

Nesting and Reproduction

Birds that have moved southward for the winter return to western and central Kentucky in March.

The earliest clutches are laid in western Kentucky by mid-March, typically three to four eggs.

(Photo by Daniel D. Auria, Courtesy National Audubon Society)

Killdeers nest out in the open. Their nest is a shallow scrape, formed in sand, pebbles and gravel, amid a sparse growth of weeds. Their tan eggs are speckled with brown and black, perfectly camouflaged against a backdrop of wooden debris, sand, dirt and rocks.

Incubation is by both parents and takes 24 to 28 days.

In very hot climates adults shade eggs at midday, soaking their belly feathers to help cool the eggs.

The young leave nest soon after hatching. Young are tended by both parents but feed themselves. In about 25 days they can fly.

In Kentucky and some warmer parts of their range, Killdeers raise two broods per year. In Kentucky, second broods are usually hatched off by early July.

The Killdeer often makes its home in some of the most improbable places and its eggs are laid on bare ground.

Nesting pairs rely on natural camouflage, and behavioral antics to keep predators away from their eggs and young.

These characteristics alone make the Killdeer one of Kentucky’s most fascinating and unusual bird species.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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