Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) birds are masters of deception. They lay eggs on the ground—right in plain sight—except that they are hard to see. If their nest is approached, the killdeer parent will distract the intruder by running along the ground, sometimes calling loudly—hence the vociferous portion of the Latin name provided to them by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. Once attention is gained, the killdeer may frequently crouch on the ground and put up one of its wings in an awkward pose as if it is broken. This effective strategy draws the attention of a possible egg-eater away from the nest.
The first time I encountered a killdeer was in the Bighorn Basin in central Wyoming. I was searching for fossils when I noticed a small bird nearby, running away from me and then crouching on the ground with its wing up and screeching loudly. I immediately turned and began walking toward it to see if it was hurt. I had only taken a few steps when the bird suddenly ran forward another 10 feet and repeated the routine. I continued to follow. Suddenly it took flight, squawking all the way. I continued on with my fossil hunting. Thinking back, I now realize that I must have been very close to a killdeer nest sitting open on the desert ground but the bird had led me away. It was a clever ruse and one that worked well to protect the killdeer eggs.
The following day I saw a killdeer in the same area, from afar, and took some pictures but did not approach it again. Two years later I re-examined those photos for possible use in this article and to my great surprise some of the pictures show the killdeer standing by a nest with three eggs. I had even edited one of those photos in the past and never noticed the nest!
Not more than a week later on the same vacation, our family visited Monument Rocks in Kansas. Again, we were looking for fossils when I spotted a bird making a lot of noise and acting strangely. The same series of events occurred as did in Wyoming. I took a couple of pictures and started to walk toward it. I still did not know what kind of bird it was and I was unaware of the nest. But my eight-year-old daughter called me back over to where I had been when I first noticed the bird and pointed out to me the eggs she had found lying nearby on the ground. Sure enough, there were four speckled eggs laying in a “nest” made of pieces of a shattered giant clam shell fossils.
This spring, nearly two years later, I found myself walking along train tracks in Canton, Ohio, near the Football Hall of Fame. Suddenly I noticed a small bird running away at a right angle about twenty feet ahead. It made a shrill sound and then crouched and put its wing up. This time I wasn’t fooled by the distraction. I was fully aware of what kind of bird it was and immediately recognized that it was attempting to change my direction. I ignored the bird and slowly kept walking along the tracks. Twenty feet later I finally spotted what I was looking for: four killdeer eggs nestled on the gravel bed of the railroad tracks.
I had learned about killdeer behavior from my previous experience in Kansas and I put that knowledge to use this time. Instead of being drawn away from the nest, I used the killdeer behavior to find the nest.
The killdeer life history makes for a remarkable story of how cleverly disguised eggs, delayed egg hatching and adult behaviors combine to allow a “shorebird” to live very successfully in a wide variety of environments including highly urban settings.
Let’s look a bit closer at what makes this species of bird, which is widespread across North America, so special.
Hiding in plain sight: minimal nests with maximum camouflage
Killdeer choose to nest directly on the open ground, preferably among small rocks. They will nest on gravel roads, on gravel rooftops of houses, and in open fields. They will avoid nesting near shrubs or other objects we think might provide some cover or shielding. It’s as if to say, I am going to nest where you would least expect me to, so you won’t be looking for me!
Nests are just small scratches in the ground or a few pebbles or rocks moved to create a shallow depression to lay eggs. Killdeer adults are difficult to see when they are sitting on their nests (see photos at the end of this article for an example). There are times when they don’t move from the nest when approached because their motion may be easier to spot than the birds themselves. But its the eggs they lay that are especially well-suited for their environment. The speckled eggs blend into their surroundings whether it be gravel, rocks or soils. Sometimes, the killdeer will bring a few items to the nest to further camouflage the eggs. Most killdeer eggs are remarkably similar in appearance. The are a light sandy color with brown to black splotches. However, some coloration pattern variation on killdeer eggs does occur. For example, there were small, red-colored flecks on the eggs that I observed in Kansas and the fossil substrate upon which the birds had nested also contained some small red rocks.
Devoted parents share nesting duties
Killdeer mates share nesting duties taking turns incubating the eggs. When I approached the nest both parents actively participated in performing distraction displays, working together to lead me away from the nest. In addition to the broken wing display they also engaged in false brooding. As they scoot away from real nest they crouch on the ground and pretend to be sitting on a nest. I witnessed both maters engaging in this behavior as I walked toward them. While many birds exhibit female-only care or male-only care researchers have found that biparental care is necessary in this species for successful raising of young. If one parent was lost, it was possible to hatch the nest but not to provide enough support afterward.
Precocial birds: Born ready to go
Killdeer hatchlings are remarkably well developed. They have feathers, they are able to see and they can walk within minutes of hatching, if necessary. These features in offspring are called precocial. After hatching, the parents don’t feed the babies. Hatchlings leave the nest within hours and quickly learn to forage for food themselves. However, the parent’s job is not done. Both parents must continue to incubate the hatchlings which are unable to adequately thermoregulate themselves. They also provide protection by guiding them to safe places and warning them of oncoming danger.
Parental care after hatching
The day after the hatchlings left the nest I revisited the location. From a distance I could see two adult killdeer on the railroad tracks, very close to where their nest had been. When I came within 200 feet of them, they both started calling loudly and moved off at opposing right angles making themselves very visible. I knew the hatchlings must be on or near the railroad bed. However, it took me a full fifteen minutes of searching to finally find one hiding in plain sight among the rocks. All the while, both parents were flying around me, calling loudly and performing distraction displays. One of their calls undoubtedly included a signal to the young hatchling to stay still. I was able to confirm this later after I had retreated for a while and waited until the parents gave the all clear signal. Once the hatchling got up and started following one of the parents, I again moved toward them. The parent flew off making the usual distraction sounds as the hatchling was running away from me. But I could clearly discern a distinct, long, single, high-pitched sound that was different than others I had heard before. Immediately, the young hatchling sat down and lay absolutely still. It remained that way during the several minutes that I continued taking pictures. Not until I was far away for some time did the parents once again give the all clear signal and the hatchling popped up and went on its way.
The hatchlings must develop during the summer to the point that they can take the long migration route to Central or South America at which time they will now be on their own. The parents will also make the trip and after overwintering a 1000 more more miles away. The following spring they may return to the same location and make a nest in nearly the same spot!
Marvels of creation
The killdeer is certainly an amazing part of God’s good creation. Had killdeer lived in the Levant region during the lifetime of Job, God could have told Job to consider His killdeer and how He has provisioned the killdeer with the wisdom to hide their eggs and their young in plain sight, to develop the young in the egg until they were able to see, walk and eat immediately upon hatching, and He ordained that both parents play a role from nesting until the point of their offspring gaining independence.
It is easy to confirm that the creator God is responsible for forming the remarkable killdeer. He created the heavens and the earth. But how did He do it? This is where agreement among Christians is hard to find. Consider your answers to the following questions: was the killdeer species, described above, created by God without any ancestral connections to other bird species? If the original creation was a perfect paradise as some young-earth creationists believe, what was the function of their deception, camouflage eggs and precocial young if there was no predation or chance of dying? Were the killdeer preserved on Noah’s ark? Is the behavior of the killdeer the result of Adam’s sin?
We will tackle these difficult questions in the near future. For now, consider the killdeer and marvel at a great work of our Creator.
Additional photos below.
For my full set of photos please visit https://www.beechnutphotography.com/Killdeer-Natural-History/
Editing provided by MC