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Killdeers, the Two Ringed Plover

killdeers

Killdeer, a shorebird that doesn't need a shore

Killdeer birds are fun to watch. For example, most people love to see how they run because of their stop-start style of running. Their little chicks are cute, like little brown cotton balls on stilts. They behave much like the parents who are devoted to them. In this lens, I will discuss various facets of killdeer life as well as talk about how to deal with killdeer- human problems.

Killdeer are found all over the United States, Canada and Mexico. They can also be found in South America during their summer months. A very small population of them live in Great Britain and are often sought after there by birdwatchers. Some have also been spotted on various islands in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Though they were once hunted to extremes for their bright orange, white and black-striped tail feathers, they are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and it is illegal to hunt or possess any part of them, their young, or their eggs. The only exception is for sustenance hunting in Canada and poorer areas of South America in which there are extremely strict controls and requirements to participate in. Most killdeer don't live in areas where sustenance hunting is allowed and those that do are almost never hunted. It has been reported that the taste of killdeer flesh is just barely above edible.

**I've noticed there's been a lot of inquiries to this page about keeping them as pets. Please don't. Besides the legal issues, they don't make good pets in any way. While they are often friendly and can appear tame, they do not bond to humans and don't like to be touched. They also tend to be nervous and don't like to be kept in coops or any shelter (they don't seem to like anything over their heads). The only reason to keep any killdeer in captivity is for licensed research, rehabilitation, or preservation. Anything else is going to be trouble for both killdeer and humans.

All photos on this lens were taken by me unless otherwise noted. Please do not use them without asking.

Beautiful male killdeer

Beautiful male killdeer

What is a killdeer?

A killdeer is a medium-sized plover just smaller than a mourning dove. The plover family also contains semipalmated plovers (closely related to the common ringed plover), mountain plovers, black-bellied plovers, American golden plovers, snowy plovers, and piping plovers. Plovers are also closely related to lapwings and killdeer chicks look very similar to the northern lapwing's chicks.

It's name comes from the sound the male makes when announcing it's territory or challenging other males, "kill-dee! kill-dee!", which also is indicative of it's scientific name: Charadrius vociferus or "talkative plover". Killdeers are technically a shorebird and can be found on the seashore, especially near river outlets where there aren't a lot of people. But, they've adapted very well to living near people away from large bodies of water and can also be found on farms, ranches, near stables, around lakes, in private yards, along drainage ditches, and on roofs.

Killdeers live in North America and small parts of South America during the winter. Occasionally, they can be found in Great Britain where it is thought that they may have arrived by storm around the mid-1800s. However, sightings are rare and are often confused with the common ringed plover that is native to the area.

Killdeers are social birds and, during non-breeding times, can be found in loose, "unofficial flocks" that are sometimes large in number. Many of these loose flocks consist of family members, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles and cousins. During breeding periods, usually from March to the end of July in most areas, a single male will choose a territory in which he will call for a mate either from the ground or by flying over the air along his territorial boundaries. Any or all females are welcome to visit his territory to inspect his nesting site. Some males make long-term bonds with females that can last an average of three years or more. The pair travel and choose a breeding area together.

Male killdeers are almost indistinguishable from the females. In general, males have more black on the face and a more square head. Males tend to be more vocal, overall, but females can also be very vocal when alarmed. I will discuss breeding behavior and chicks in another module.

Killdeers eat a wide range of food such as crawling insects like ants, grasshoppers, small crustaceans and worms. They will also eat some weed seeds and insect larva. Killdeer are very beneficial as they eat a lot of crop damaging and livestock infecting insects, like ticks. Killdeers can be seen as a "barometer" to the overuse of pesticides as they feed on a lot of the insects that pesticides are being used against. Organic farmers appreciate the presence of killdeer and other insect eating birds in their fields.

Killdeers have many "enemies", especially for the chicks, which are born precocial, meaning "pre-knowing" or very advanced. I will talk about chicks in detail in another module. Domestic and feral cats are probably the biggest threat to the killdeer along with domestic dogs. Other, natural, threats include crows, hawks, foxes, coyotes, weasels, skunks, and other animals that would eat a chick or an egg. Most threats are to the chicks, who can't fly, but adults can still fall prey to these animals. The average lifespan of a killdeer is about six years.

Killdeer populations are stable, at the moment, though there has been a noticeable decline in some areas during the last few decades. This may be due to the increase of development along rivers, lakes, and oceans. Also, human populations may have contributed to this decline with human-destroyed nests, domestic cat (and dog) predation, and increased vehicle traffic.

Killdeer are fun to watch, but they are often very shy and generally like to keep a buffer zone of about twenty to thirty feet. They also blend in very well with their surroundings. When protecting a nest or a mate, they may get very close and noisy. Often, they do what is called a "broken wing" act to lure predators away from the nest by faking an injury.

Killdeer items from Amazon.com

Here are some cute killdeer items on Amazon.com.

Killdeer egg

Killdeer egg

2014 Nesting Season Is Here!

Nests have already been sighted in the San Diego area and I suspect that many other areas will be seeing them, soon. Where I live, they are starting to breed earlier than last year. I've already seen baby herons, osprey and ducklings this year.

Killdeer nests are difficult to find and are often not discovered until shortly before hatching. Then, they can disappear all of a sudden along with the parents. Usually, if there are no eggshells or signs of a struggle, that means that they hatched and the parents took the chicks elsewhere. If they disappear, but the parents are still hanging around, listen for chicks responding to their deets. If there are no chick sounds, it may mean something happened to the nest. In that case, they will begin nesting again within the next two weeks as long as it's early in the nesting season.

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How to tell if you are seeing a boy or girl killdeer chick:

Usually, it's best to take a photograph and look for these characteristics on your own time.

Boy killdeer chicks have a black or brown stripe that runs from their bill and under their eye. Males also tend to be more curious, adventurous, and take more risks. You are more likely to see male chicks than female chicks out in the open. A photo of a male chick can been seen below.

Girl killdeer chicks have a light brown line running from their bill to the corner of their eye only. They tend to be more obedient to their parents and will quickly hide when the parent tells them to. They are also more likely to stay in one place even when they're discovered.

After three weeks, however, it gets a little harder to distinguish between the sexes. Generally, the males will be darker over the bill and under the eye.

Little Miracle, the killdeer chick and her mom

Little Miracle, the killdeer chick and her mom

Killdeer Breeding and Chicks

As said before, in most areas, breeding either starts with a single male choosing a territorial area and nesting site or a pair returning/reusing a nest site from before. Single males will then call out in hopes that a single female will come and visit his territory and accept his courtship scrapes and dances. Some pairs stay together for years, but the male must "renew" his bond with his female by doing courtship moves. At the end of each breeding season, the pair may either split up or stay together another year.

In the breeding territory, the male will scrape out various nest sites and allows the female to choose one. Then, she will lay an average of three to five eggs, usually over two days, in the scrape and rearrange nearby rocks for good heat transfer and camouflage. Both she and the male will begin incubating the eggs after the last one is laid. The eggs, in general, take from 24 to 28 days to hatch. If the weather is on the cool side, the eggs tend to take a the longer number of days. If cold weather hits during a critical period, the chicks may die before hatching.

During the hatch, the parent removes all eggshell, either by eating it or moving it far away. Some researches have noted the opposite in their studies, however. But, most people who have observed killdeer nests in their yards usually report that the shells are gone by the time the chicks are moving about.

Killdeer chicks can be up and running as soon as they're dry, but tend to stay near the nest for the first few days, if the parents feel it's safe. However, if either parent feels that the area is not safe, they will leave as soon as possible and never come back. Killdeer nests are notorious for disappearing in what would seem a blink of an eye. Sometimes, there will be one egg that will be late in hatching and parents often wait a long time to try to hatch it. If the parents are extremely anxious about leaving, they will sometimes throw that last egg off the nest, possibly to detract from predators following the rest of the family to safety. Unfortunately, that late egg will sometimes hatch and die soon afterward.

The parent does not feed the chick, but rather leads the chick down to a feeding area and shows it what is good to eat. The chicks copy their parents and feed themselves on the smaller bugs, worms, and crustaceans.

During the first week, killdeer chicks rely on camouflage and hiding rather than running. They will stay very still like a rock and can even be handled when they do so. Sometimes, the parent will shield the chicks under their wing, especially when there is possible danger from above. After about a week, the chicks usually are adept at running very fast and will rely on that mode of defense until they fledge (begin flying) at 30-35 days of age.

Killdeer with nest

Killdeer with eggs

Killdeer with eggs

Here is a mother killdeer rushing up to me to distract me from her nest.

Cool Killdeer Facts

Here are some fun killdeer facts, some of which have already been mentioned in this lens.

  • Killdeer are the only two-ringed plover in the world
  • Killdeer occasionally nest on roofs and their young have to jump off or starve
  • Killdeer chicks often survive falls up to 30 ft, especially if the ground below is "soft"
  • Killdeer "hiccup" when they are nervously watching possible predators
  • Both male and female take care of the nest, most of the time
  • Male killdeer put more effort into guarding and caring for the nest and chicks than the females
  • Killdeer do not feed their young, but "show" them what to eat
  • Killdeer chicks have only one band while their parents have two
  • Killdeer are territorial when it comes to protecting their young, even against other species of plovers
  • Killdeer parents will easily adopt unrelated young if the same age as their own young

Here are some links for more "official" information about killdeer. I will be posting more links as I find them.

  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website on Killdeer
    Learn how to identify Killdeer, its life history, cool facts, sounds and calls, and watch videos. A shorebird you can see without going to the beach, Killdeer are graceful plovers common to lawns, golf courses, athletic fields, and parking lots. Thes
  • What Bird info on Killdeer
    Killdeer: Large banded plover, brown upperparts and white underparts, two distinct black bands cross upper breast. White stripes on wings are visible in flight. Tail and rump show rust-brown in flight. Black bill, pink-brown legs and feet. Wavering,
  • Common Killdeer Calls
    Click here for some common killdeer sounds.
  • The Precocious Killdeer
    Killdeer are precocial birds: the young are hatch fluffy and ready to run. By their behavior, parents tell you chicks are nearby.
  • Killdeer on the Driveway, by Diane Porter
    Killdeer nest on the ground. The eggs look so vulnerable, it's tempting to interfere, but it's better for the killdeer if we can simply let nature be.

Cute Killdeer Videos

Here are some fun killdeer videos to watch.

My Killdeer Slideshows on Youtube

Here are some slideshows that I made from my photographs of killdeer chicks.

Hatched During the Fireworks

Killdeer George's 2010 Killdeer Review

George Killdeer's 2012 Lake Murray Killdeer Review

Killdeers like to live near freshwater sources

Killdeers like to live near freshwater sources

Creating a Killdeer-Friendly Environment

How to keep killdeer nesting in your yard or property

Killdeer are good to have around because they rid the area of a lot of pests and create very few problems for people or other birds other than the noise they make. If you like killdeer and want them nesting near you, here are some tips:

Create an environment that killdeer like. Killdeer like to be close to a freshwater source. They don't have to have a shoreline or live near a lake or river, but they need daily water both for drinking and for their food. Also, killdeer like to have wide open spaces with lots of gravel or buff-colored rocks to lay their eggs in. They don't like anything blocking their view of any predators above or on the ground and they want their eggs to blend in. They also like places with lots of insects such as ants, worms, and insect larva.

Keep possible predators to a minimum. This includes domestic cats and dogs. Fencing that keeps out stray pets and larger predators, but have enough spaces or holes in it to let out killdeer chicks would also help. Using predator urine (make sure it's not a predator in your area) and other smells that these animals find displeasing may be helpful. Some people in more rural area use chicken wire with large holes topped with a string or two of barbed wire to keep predators out of their property or pets away from certain areas. This may require burying some of the fence as many predators like to dig. Not only will this help keep out killdeer predators, but help to keep other animals and livestock safe.

One of the biggest thing you can do is discourage crows, large blackbirds and grackles from regularly visiting or nesting in the area . Grackles have been observed killing adult killdeer (though rarely), crows often follow and "bully" killdeer, but all three of these birds will kill and eat killdeer eggs and young. If at all possible, do not keep or spread any feed containing corn or peanuts anywhere close to the killdeer nesting areas. Also, these birds like pet food and will eat trash that is not covered. If you must feed livestock with corn-based feed, try to do so in an enclosed area where the crows, blackbirds or grackles can't get to it or put in a container and feed with supervision while chasing the pest birds away. Remove all leftover food as soon as the animals are done eating. Don't make a regular habit of feeding mealworms or other worms to birds as grackles often take the food right out of the other bird's mouth or will attack them. Be careful if you are planning to use any kind of eradication techniques on these birds as many of them eat the same food and use the same environment that the killdeer uses.

Killdeer nesting in an office parking lot

Killdeer nesting in an office parking lot

Killdeer-Human Help

Suggestions for common killdeer questions and problems.

I thought I would answer some of the common issues that I have seen come up when people talk about killdeer. Some of my answers are based on my own experiences and observations, some are based on advice given out by wildlife rescue agencies and biologists.

I found a baby killdeer all alone, what should I do? It's not uncommon for baby killdeer to be all alone, especially when they are 10 days old or more. The parents often leave their babies alone while they feed or defend the area. The best thing to do is leave it alone and watch it from inside a car or building or far away with binoculars. Chances are the parents are nearby and are waiting for you to leave. You may even hear the parents calling. If the chick is in immediate danger or you know for sure the parents are dead, then take the chick to a rehabilitator. If you think that the danger can be eliminated or pass within a day (such as in the case of a pet threatening the chick), keep it in a cardboard box with some paper towel, a heating pad set on low, water and a lamp (make sure that there is shade and a "cool area" in case it wants to cool down). Then, as soon as possible, return it back to the area where it was found after the danger is secured (watch for crows and other predators as they are very smart and will watch what you're doing) It is illegal for you to possess these birds or eggs. Chicks often die under human care if they are not treated delicately by people trained to help them.

Touching a baby killdeer will not cause a parent to reject it. If the real parents are not around, try finding another family with chicks near the same age. Make sure the parents act interested in the chick before letting it go and then move far away, preferably out of sight, and observe. Eventually, the chick should be following the other adults or be brooded by one of them, though it might not happen right away. If not, or if the chick is attacked, collect it and take it to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator.

I found a nest that with two eggs smashed and took the other two home, what should I do? This answer can be applied to most "I found an egg" question. Most wildlife officials and rescuers will tell you to put the eggs back unless the destruction was caused by humans, their pets or vehicle traffic. A lot of animals eat killdeer eggs and, sadly, this is a part of nature. If the eggs aren't in immediate danger, call a rescue agency and check before removing them. Don't try to hatch them yourself as the chicks often die upon hatching by a human. A rescue agency has incubators and other means to prevent that.

I was really enjoying some cute killdeer chicks running around my property after hatching yesterday. Last night, a neighbor's cats came and killed two of them; the other two and one parent are missing and I think the cats got them, too. What happened and how can I prevent this next time? This is truly a sad situation as it looks like your neighbor's cat got them on the nest by surprise. They may not have known there were cats around until then. But, cheer up, the other two may be safe with the other parent. One parent may stay behind at the nest site to "make sure" that the other chicks are really gone before he/she abandons the nest. When you have cooled down, talk to your neighbors about the cats and see if they can confine them to their property. Or, you can buy "cat deterrents" such as cat-proof fencing, sonic devices, or predator urine (make sure it's not a predator that frequents your area) to keep cats from entering your property. Other suggestions can be using mulch that smells bad to the cat like something with orange peels or cocoa. You may have to reapply these often. I once heard a suggestion about planting catnip near where the cats enter the property. The cats smell the catnip and forget why they came over there in the first place and go back home. No solution is 100% cat-proof, but anything you can do will lessen the probability of an attack. Check birding sites for more ideas.

What, as a cat owner, can I do to help ground nesting birds? The single most effective thing you can do is keep cats confined indoors or in an outdoor enclosure or building. However, this may not be possible, especially in rural areas where cats are often kept for rodent control. In that case, the best thing to do is spay and neuter your cat. Studies have shown that spayed female cats will stay close to the areas where they are sent to "work" and not wander. Neutered males wander a little more, but not as much as un-neutered males. Cats can also be "de-conditioned" to hunting birds or other animals through training (yes, cats can be trained and conditioned just like any other animal) Another thing is not to leave out food for strays and work with feral cat agencies to spay and neuter feral cats.

I love killdeer and want to encourage them to nest on my property, what should I do? Killdeer love open spaces with lots of gravel. They also like to have a freshwater source nearby (sometimes a pool or drainage ditch will suffice) and lots of bugs. They need to have an area in which they feel safe with no threats of cats, dogs, or other predators. Make sure your neighbor's pets don't wander on your property and tell their owners what you are doing so that they won't be surprised or annoyed by the noise (if you are in a more populated area).

A killdeer nested right in my driveway! I'm afraid the nest will be run over, what can I do? Can I move the nest? Killdeer love gravel driveways and often nest right in the middle of them. Unfortunately, they don't consider vehicles very threatening and driving up and down the lane will not discourage them from nesting there. If at all possible, put up cones or a barrier so that no one hits the nest on the drive in. Try to go around the nest as much as possible. Do not try to move the nest. Moving the nest is possible if done correctly, but it's very tricky and should only be done by someone who is knowledgeable about these things and has a license to handle wildlife. If it is done wrong, the bird will abandon the nest. It should only be done as an absolute last resort if all other options fail and not because it's inconvenient.

I have a killdeer nest on the roof and I know that the parents don't feed the babies, but lead them to food. I'm afraid that they will starve or get hurt if they try to jump off. What should I do? Fortunately, roof nesting killdeer are rare compared to the many thousands of other nests around. They tend to nest on flat, gravel roofs, or roofs made to look natural. If the roof has a parapet on all sides then the chicks will probably starve, so they will have to be rescued. If possible, check the roof often and as soon as the chicks have fully hatched, gather them and take them to the ground below. Make sure you do this under the parents' supervision so that they can easily find them. Set them on the ground and then move far away or inside the building. If you don't have a parapet problem, can't access the roof easily and your building is lower than 30 feet, make sure all areas around the building have a soft landing material such as grass or soft mulch on "jump day". Many chicks survive jumps from lower elevations as long as they don't land on hard surfaces. Be prepared for some possible causalities, though, because killdeer chicks are not designed to jump off of buildings.