Reflections in Nature: Female killdeer breaks routine

As my wife, Mary Alice, and I were leaving the state Game Commission’s Harrisburg office, she began describing a bird she had seen when walking up the driveway to the building.

In the midst of describing the bird and its fanned-out tail of many colors, she said, “There it is.” The bird, which was a killdeer, had blended in with the multicolored stones where it was sitting, while displaying its brightly colored tail and giving a distress call.

Mary Alice stayed at a distance from the killdeer while I went to the car to get a camera. When I returned, the killdeer still was in the same spot, which led me to believe that it probably was sitting on a nest.

To get a better picture, I moved closer, and the killdeer nervously moved about, fluffing her feathers out to appear bigger and displaying her golden-red rump and long tail, while at the same time giving a distress call.

I was sure that the killdeer’s next move would be the broken-wing routine, in an effort to lead us away from the nest; however, the female stood her ground and did not leave. At this time, I could see the eggs that blended in perfectly with the stones. After getting several pictures we left, not wanting to cause the bird any more distress.

The killdeer is a member of the plover family. Our word plover is used to describe any of our numerous shorebirds, which resemble the sandpipers but have a hard-tipped bill. “Plover” comes from the Latin word “pluvial,” meaning rain; possibly from their restlessness before rain.

In German, “plover” means “little rain-piper.” In ancient European folklore, the plovers were associated with rain; however, they are not more active nor any more vocal during the rain than at any other time.

The killdeer’s scientific name is Charadrius vociferous. Charadriidae is Greek and means either a mountain stream or a ravine, while the vociferous is Latin and means “I cry,” or “I shout,” and is given because the bird is noisy.

Its call sounds like kill-dee, kill-dee, which gives the bird its common name of killdeer.

The male killdeer courts the female with aerial displays and scraping movements to encourage the female to construct a nest. The nest is out in the open and on the ground, usually on gravel roads, parking lots, railroad tracks and roof tops.

The young are precocial and will leave the nest shortly after being born. The parents will lead the young to feeding areas; however, it’s up to the young to find their own food.

When danger approaches, the young will lie flat on the ground, blending in so perfectly they are apt to be overlooked.

The adult killdeer is the only plover with two breast rings; however, the unmistakable young killdeers will have only one black ring across their breasts. As they grow older, they will develop the second black band.

During the month of March, I usually write in my diary that I have seen a killdeer for the first time that spring. They are one of the earliest migrating shorebirds. The killdeer winters over in much of the southern half of the United States.

During the spring migration, small flocks of killdeer might be seen. Since they migrate during both day and night, their migration movements are not as noticeable as that of other songbirds. Males have a greater tendency to return to the same breeding sites than the females.

Although both sexes appear the same, the male has more black on its face than the female.

Breeding takes place from April through mid-August, with some pairs raising two broods. The nest is nothing more than a small depression lined with pebbles. The eggs, usually four, are pear-shaped and are arranged in a four-leaf clover pattern, with the small ends together. The eggs are large and blotched, with hues of black and brown, which blend extremely well on gravel.

The incubation period is 24 days. Both parents attend the brood, and the young first fly about 25 days after hatching.

Today, the killdeer, which had been a game bird until 1900, is protected and no longer hunted.

Cameron, Clinton, Elk, Forest, Pike and Sullivan counties are among the state’s most heavily forested counties and the least populated by humans. The killdeer does not find these conditions to its liking, and the population is low in these areas.

I’ve seen many killdeer, but this one was the first that stood its ground and did not allow us near its nest.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.