Crafty killdeer have a bag of tricks

Killdeer look as intelligent as any other bird. Indeed they can be downright crafty. Yet when it comes time to raising young, it is hard to imagine any bird being more addled.

To make my point, let's see how you fare on the killdeer intelligence test. Here goes. The best place for a nest is: A) hidden under a bush, B) a remote corner of a field, or C) the middle of traffic. To a killdeer, it's obvious. The answer is C, the middle of traffic.

Every year I hear stories of killdeer laying their eggs in the middle of a gravel road or school playground. And yet, as often as not, they survive. This is more a testament to observant and caring students and teachers than it is to any kind of intelligence on the part of the killdeer. Caution tape isn't used just for construction areas.

Killdeer are robin-sized plovers with a brown back, white belly and two bold chest bands. They are quite vocal and one of their calls sounds as if they are saying "kill-dee, kill-dee," hence the name.

Why do killdeer seemingly prefer gravel roads and playgrounds? Well, their habits are far older than elementary schools. They are birds of open ground, a place where they have few competitors for the sparse fare of seeds and tiny insects. Before playgrounds, they preferred gravel bars, areas overgrazed by animals and other barren areas. The relatively large eyes of killdeer indicate that they forage at night as well as by day. Many insects are more active at night.

The hardest part is raising a family. Killdeer can't build real nests, which would be too obvious. A slight depression serves as the nest. Also, because of their location out in the open, white eggs or eggs of almost any color would stand out like a beacon, so killdeer eggs are exquisitely camouflaged. I have stood three feet away from where I determined a nest had to be, and it took several minutes before I was finally able to discern the nest in plain sight.

A dog or skunk or crow will inevitably happen by. The nest, in the middle of open ground, is quite vulnerable. That's when the killdeer pulls out its bag of tricks. It slips off the "nest" and moves a short distance away. Now the tears. "I'm hurt. I'm hurt," it calls. "Oh, my wing is broken" (holding its wing at an odd angle and letting it flop). Come catch me. I'm an easy meal."

The predator is surprised when the "hurt" killdeer manages to stay just out of reach time and again. It spreads its tail, revealing a reddish orange patch of feathers. This bird really is hurt. It's bleeding. Or so it seems. No other plover has this patch of "bloody" feathers to display, but then other plovers don't nest in playgrounds.

The act is convincing. Off the potential predator is led. When safely 50 yards or so away from the nest, the killdeer recovers miraculously from its near-death experience and flies off — quite healthy — returning stealthily to its nest and leaving a confused predator in its wake.

Killdeer aren't the only birds with a "broken wing" act. I have experienced the performance from long-eared owls, great horned owls and mourning doves, but none so convincingly as that of the killdeer.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at

Share This Story