The Killdeer is a member of the Plover family and is most closely related to small plovers such as the common Semipalmated Plover and the endangered Piping Plover. All belong to the Genus, Charadius, which derives from a Greek word meaning “gully.” The reference is to the nest of the Killdeer and its close relatives. Generally the Killdeer makes a tiny hollow (“gully”) for its eggs, perhaps with a few chips of stone or woods, or weed stalks placed around it. There is no great time, expense, effort, or creativity put into the nest. The Killdeer nests that I have seen required some imagination in order to claim that the Killdeer had built it; the building was minimal at best.
Last year I saw several nesting Killdeer in a gravel parking area at a ski area. It has been suggested that nesting in such an open area gives the Killdeer an extended view so that it can quickly react to an intruder or potential danger. When any perceived threat appears, the Killdeer immediately begins its defensive maneuvers to protect its eggs or its young.
I remember one time walking through a farmer’s pasture in mid-May when I heard loud, shrill “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee.” The panicked distress call went on and on, and drew my attention. There was a Killdeer, orange tail spread, limping along with an injured wing. Had I been a big, enthusiastic bird-dog, I would have gone bounding after the poor distressed bird, delighted that I could grab it so easily and proudly present it to my master. And I would have ended up with a great big mouthful of nothing. The broken wing and the shrill distressed “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee” is just an act, designed to draw away the gullible intruder.
But I wasn’t a big, gullible dog, and I was wise to the Killdeer. I watched it limping off in one direction. To provide some reassurance to the poor Killdeer, I followed it for a few paces. But then I turned around and saw four downy young Killdeer, just a few days out of the egg. They scurried through the grass into cover, while their other parent flew about, screaming and providing additional distraction from the young.
Meanwhile, the faux-injured bird kept itself safe; its injured wing healed miraculously, and it flew off well before I could have become a real threat or the most rambunctious bird-dog could have made a grab.
The Killdeer employs different defensive tactics in different circumstances. Bent’s Life History reports an observer who noticed that a flock of driven goats divided in the middle of a field: “I walked up to the place expecting to find a rattlesnake, and found instead a killdeer standing over her eggs with upspread wings and scolding vigorously.”
Another observer watched a Killdeer family along the shore of a pond. Shorebirds were abundant around the pond except in the vicinity of the parent killdeer: “The parent was extremely belligerent, and I watched it attack other killdeers, yellowlegs, spotted sandpipers, soras, and song sparrows that happened to wander in the vicinity. All birds seemed glad to leave the vicinity.”
Much of the Killdeer’s defensive pugnacity is vocal, but its oft repeated “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee” is not limited to times of danger, though danger makes the cry more strident. The Killdeer is the noisy plover, as one writer calls it in English and as science names it in Latin. Charadius vociferus scarcely needs translation; the Killdeer is vociferous - loud, clamorous, noisy. Often I hear the Killdeer before I see it. It calls when it takes flight. It calls when it is in flight. It calls whenever it feels in the mood, which is often.
The Killdeer seen last week on top of the snow is not unusual. It is an early migrant. Birds begin their northward journeys when the amount of daylight and their internal clocks say it is time to go. These triggers to movement do not necessarily coincide with propitious weather.
I remember a few years ago when we also had deep snows. The fields around the water treatment plant on Route 30 had a few bare patches and along the highway berm the ground was clear. But most of the pastures were still covered with snow. Dozens of killdeer were concentrated along the bare roadside and the small areas free from snow, while many also worked their way along the top of the snow. They all moved in classic plover fashion - walk, halt, stop-and-pick, walk, halt, stop-and-pick, their movements abrupt and jerky.
The Killdeer is so widespread and so common that it is easy for birders to be dismissive: “Oh, it’s just a Killdeer” - then hurry on to look for something “good.” There is nothing difficult about identifying the Killdeer. It is distinctive and unmistakable. Some birders have thick masochistic streaks; they are not truly happy unless they are painfully trying to make a difficult identification, and the Killdeer doesn’t even have any subspecies to challenge them.
But I find the Killdeer to be a joyful bird, one that is always a pleasure to see. It is handsome, active, often entertaining. It is one of the easier birds to identify in flight or by its call.
And the Killdeer can become quite comfortable around people. Last April, we visited friends in North Carolina. Near the development’s community center they showed us where a Killdeer was nesting on a strip of lawn between the roadway and parking lot. Residents had placed a rope barrier around the nest to protect it. The Killdeer was quite comfortable with passing walkers who stopped to look at its nursery. When I approached the nest, the parent spread its tail in minor distress, and I backed off. But later, when it went for a short walk, I was able to approach slowly and see that three of the four eggs had recently hatched; one chick was still wet after breaking from the shell.
The reports of returning migrants are beginning to pile up. Each day another bird is added to the list, and the promise of Spring grows more certain: red-wings and grackles, robins and Song Sparrows, bluebirds and phoebes - and all kinds of ducks. Then there are the residents showing signs of Spring as they begin courtship and look for nesting sites. The crows are noisy; so are the ravens. Starling flocks are dispersing. The single Downy Woodpeckers which came to the suet through the winter are now coming in a pair. Mourning Doves are cooing to one another. Winter calls are giving way to songs. Chickadees sing “peee ... weee.” The “peter, peter, peter” of the titmice greets the first light. From a pine tree Prince Cardinal whistles his song, and from atop a bare cherry tree a Carolina Wren warbles his virtues.
And then there is the “kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee”- or perhaps - “dee dee dee dee-ee kildee dee-ee” - those are good sounds. One of the songs of Spring!