The Shorebird Everyone Sees (or Hears!)

It seems everyone knows about killdeer. They’re a shorebird that can be seen without going to the shore! Killdeer are common and widespread, adapted to a variety of human habitats, and noisy! They frequent wet places – mudflats, puddles, flooded fields and shorelines. But, unlike other shorebirds, they are very much at home “wading” in the short grass of grazed pastures, athletic fields, golf courses and similar terrestrial habitats.

A friend called in mid May to tell me about killdeer nesting on his farm. He had discovered one  family of newly hatched chicks near a muddy farm lane and pasture. A second nest site, with an adult still on the nest, was found in the corn stubble of a nearby field.

When we visited the site where the brood of four chicks was last seen, the empty nest was the first point of interest. Nothing more than a slight depression lined with a bit of dried plant residue, it had served its purpose and was already disappearing into the landscape.

Killdeer nest #1, immediately after hatching (May 17, 2019)

The behavior of the parents – noisy and feigning injury – told us the day-old chicks were close, hiding in the grass and weeds. One parent fluttered in the opposite direction, exhibiting the classic “broken-wing” display in order to divert our attention and draw us away from her helpless chicks. She was very convincing and we played along to avoid unnecessary disturbance. I photographed her as we left.

At the second nest site in the field of corn stubble, the adult was sitting on eggs that we assumed were near the end of their 25-day incubation period. Turns out, there were four eggs and they would hatch before our next visit.

Killdeer nest #2 (May 17, 2019)

Five days later, it was time to cultivate the corn field. Fortunately, the chicks had hatched and were mobile, able to scurry around and avoid a photographer as well as tractors. The downy little golf balls with disproportionately long legs and big feet were captivating to say the least.

Killdeer chick, 4-5 days old (1 of 2 images; May 22, 2019)

I was relieved to see the entire family a few days later, foraging in a secure micro-habitat at the edge of the cultivated field. Large puddles and a strip of dense grass and weeds was now home for the brood of four chicks.

Although the fluffy little chicks lacked the wings, tail and double neck band of their parents, their posture and foraging behavior mimicked that of adults.

The parents were never too far away and always on guard, even when grooming! I sometimes lost sight of them, but the arrival of a threat brought an immediate aerial attack. I saw this first hand when a grackle flew in to forage near the chicks. It was attacked and driven away before it s feet touched the ground.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.