The buzz

Creature feature: The crafty killdeer

A killdeer along the water's edge
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Killdeer are a common bird all across the United States, often heard before they are seen because of their loud, repetitive call.

These birds are ground nesters, and they've developed a unique way to keep intruders away from their nests. When people or animals walk toward their nests, killdeer will fake a wing injury, calling out and displaying the "injured" wing to draw them away from the eggs so they don't get trampled, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This trick isn't effective with large animals like cows, so they have a different tactic to scare them away. When large animals are near, the killdeer will puff itself up and put its tail above its head and charge at them to get them to change directions. 


Killdeer are shorebirds, but they are just as at home away from water as they are near it. Unlike most birds, when humans and other threats draw near, the killdeer will often run away first, rather than flying off. 

Here's some more information about these birds.


The name game

The killdeer name may be something of a misnomer, because they do not cause any harm to deer. Instead, these birds are named for their shrill call, which sounds like they are saying kill-deer or kill-dee, according to the Cornell Lab.

Killdeer are generally noisy birds, and their loud antics were the inspiration for many of their previous names. In the 18th century, naturalists took note of their noisy nature and called them chattering plovers and noisy plovers.

Physical characteristics

A member of the plover family, killdeer have the large eyes and short bill associated with these birds. Killdeer are about the size of a robin, and like robins, we often see them on the ground, the Cornell Lab reports. They are primarily brownish-tan, with a white underbelly, and they have two black bands on their upper chest near their necks. Their tails are long and pointy, and a rusty-orange color, but they are only visible when the birds are in flight.

Killdeer typically weigh between 2.5 and 4.5 ounces. They have long legs, much longer than you see on a robin, and their wingspan is wider as well, typically about 18 inches. 

Where they live

Killdeer typically live in open landscapes, usually with no vegetation or with vegetation less than 1 inch tall. Common sights for these shorebirds are pastures, grazed fields, mudflats and sandbars, according to the Cornell Lab. These birds are a common sight in suburban areas and in and around towns, often seen on and around lawns, golf courses, airports and parking lots.

They are ground nesters, creating shallow depressions in the ground in open landscapes. After laying their eggs — almost always four, but sometimes three or five — the birds will add pieces of rock, sticks and even garbage to the nest.  

What they eat

These birds primarily feast on insects, including beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars and insect larvae, according to the Audubon Society. To a lesser extent, they eat snails, crayfish and seeds. They are known as opportunistic foragers, so they will eat dead minnows and other small fish as well as hunt for frogs. 

Killdeer are often seen running on the ground in search of food, stopping to peck at a food source before continuing along. They are also a common sight in just-plowed fields, hoping to catch insect larvae or seeds in the freshly overturned soil. 

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