Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Killdeer employs deception for protection
Most species seek some kind of cover, whether tree leaves or grass, in order to avoid predators and weather. The killdeer takes a different approach. Rather than hiding somewhere, it conceals itself in plain sight, by making itself nearly invisible against the ground.
It would be proper to describe the killdeer as pedestrian, in the sense that it goes about on foot, which is the literal and original meaning of the word. The word’s more recent use, to mean commonplace or even dull, does not apply to the killdeer, however. It is a showy bird – flashy, even – and it is remarkably well-adapted to bare spots, including those that human pedestrians utilize, such as sidewalks, roadways, parking lots, garden plots, storage yards or just about any other piece of bare ground.
This is remarkable behavior. Most species seek some kind of cover, whether tree leaves or grass, in order to avoid predators and weather. The killdeer takes a different approach. Rather than hiding somewhere, it conceals itself in plain sight, by making itself nearly invisible against the ground. This camouflage is the first step in its survival strategy. The second is surprise. A killdeer will often sit tight until nearly stepped on, then flush suddenly and noisily. The surprise is often enough to deter any interloper.
The killdeer employs still another tactic, deception. A nesting killdeer lures intruders away by pretending to be vulnerable, then bursting into flight, leaving the intruder baffled – and the nest safe. This “broken-wing” performance has made the killdeer famous.
The combination of surprise and camouflage has worked effectively for the killdeer. The species is almost certainly more common in today’s built-up environment than it was before humans began scraping the ground. For the killdeer belongs to the large group of species that we call “shorebirds.” It is a member of the plover family, akin to sandpipers. This is evident in the bird’s body shape, long-legged and front-loaded. The killdeer is also cryptically colored, so it blends into the background when it settles down.
The killdeer is not strictly speaking a shorebird, though. It doesn’t depend on beaches, as sandpipers do. In fact, the killdeer is more closely associated with pavement – not a naturally occurring surface. Of course, this makes the killdeer vulnerable to human activity, including speeding cars, loaded grain trucks and even foot traffic. Usually there’s some kind of water nearby, but a killdeer isn’t likely to be found on a beach. A mudflat is more likely. Or a gravel bar. Or a bare spot on the prairie – an alkali seep, for example – or perhaps a closely grazed patch of grass.
Away from its nest, the killdeer is a conspicuous bird. It’s about the size of a robin, but with longer legs, so it appears taller and more pointed, due to its relatively big bill and its longish tail. The killdeer is sandy brown on its topside, white below, with two black bars across its chest. The head is patterned in brown and white. None of this is remarkable, but the killdeer has one other surprise. When disturbed, it flashes a bright orange or golden yellow patch in its tail. This effectively frightens any creature approaching a killdeer at rest.
Killdeer have a distinctive way of moving about, a kind of run-stop gait punctuated with darts and detours and accompanied by head bobbing. This behavior makes the killdeer recognizable even at a distance.
Except when it's on the nest, the killdeer makes no apparent effort to conceal itself. In fact, it can be quite conspicuous.
Killdeer are also noisy birds, calling at all hours. Killdeer vocabulary includes an array of calls, most of them rather sharp, and many including some variation of “dee.” The species name comes from its alarm call.
Killdeer occur throughout North America, except for the far north. Birds in our area are migratory; in much of the United States, the killdeer occurs year ‘round.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.