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Weekly “What is it?”: Killdeer

Twice in the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of running across the charming killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), a species of bird related to the endangered plovers often found on area beaches.  While they may also live near the water, killdeer are commonly found inland.  Killdeer have several identifying features, including short bills, brown and white bodies, and two especially noticeable black bands around the neck.  Their loud, shrill call gives them their name, and 18th century naturalists referred to them as the “chattering” and “noisy” plovers. They are ground foragers who run in short spurts as they attempt to scare up insect prey.

This killdeer has laid her eggs on the Escambia County green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

This killdeer has laid her eggs on the Escambia County green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

This bird can thrive in urban locations ranging from rooftops to parking lots and yards.  While on a recent visit to Escambia County’s green roof, a colleague and I noticed the bird flailing its feathers, hopping away from us and calling out urgently.  This mannerism, in which an adult bird calls attention to itself, was a classic nest-protection technique called “broken-wing” behavior, intended to draw a perceived predator away from eggs or hatchlings.  We looked down immediately to search for a nest, and just a couple of feet away found two lovely speckled eggs lying right on top of the roof media. The males of the species create the “nests” which are simple scrapes made with their feet in which the female lays eggs.

The speckled eggs of the killdeer blend with the gravel media of the green roof. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

The speckled eggs of the killdeer are laid atop the soil and blend with the gravel media of the green roof.           Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Several days after seeing the killdeer on the roof, I was with a group of high school students planting marsh grasses along Pensacola Bay, and observed at least three of the birds running, flying, and otherwise making themselves known to us.  In anticipation of 80 teenagers descending upon their nesting beaches, my colleagues and I started looking for their speckled eggs lying atop the soil.  We ended up flagging two nests; one further upland from the water with two eggs, and another that was being guarded vigorosly, right near the water.  When anyone approached the nesting bird, it called loudly and spread its beautiful copper-colored tail feathers, attempting to make itself look bigger and warn the approaching human not to come further.  It stood its ground as opposed to leading the percieved predator away, as the first bird did, but both methods were effective in warning us.

Because they have adapted so well to urban landscapes, killdeer are one of the more successful bird species in the country.  Look closely–you may see one (and its hidden-in-plain-sight eggs) near you! To find out more about killdeer, hear their characteristic call, and see more photos, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.