Friday, June 14, 2024

By March, killdeer had returned to our area. (Photo: Richard George)

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) are shorebirds, but you do not have to go to the beach to see them. They often nest and forage in inland grassy areas around people. At the beginning of the 1900s, these birds were hunted almost to extinction in Massachusetts. When shorebirds became protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (the easy-to-remember MBTA), killdeer populations rebounded. I have seen killdeer at Draw Seven State Park in Somerville, right across the Mystic River from the Encore Boston Harbor in Everett.

Killdeer are migratory. They return each year with the first whisper of warm weather (much earlier than most other birds). They may arrive as early as mid-February, but they are always here in March. In April, the birds hollow out nesting sites on bare soil, short grass or gravel. They have even been known to nest on flat, gravelly roofs.

Killdeer have dark eyes with a red eye ring, as seen on this killdeer in North Cambridge on July 28, 2021. (Photo: Karl Niemi)

Killdeer lay about four eggs. They line the nest with pebbles, grass or white objects (seashells, white plastic, cigarette butts). According to Charles R. Stockard:

The eggs are never hidden in the grass or weeds but are placed in slight depressions on the bare ground or on short grass turf. The saucerlike depression of a nest has scattered in it bits of shells, small pebbles, short pieces of weeds or sticks, and often small bits of crayfish armor. This rubbish is never arranged so as to form a real nest, since only a few bits of it are scattered in the depression.

A young killdeer on May 25, 2021. (Photo: Richard George)

Males and females incubate the eggs for up to 28 days. When the young hatch, they are able to fend for themselves as soon as their down is dry. The parents lead them to a grassy feeding territory, where the chicks are well hidden. It takes another month for the chicks to be able to fly, so if they feel endangered, they lie motionless on the ground.

Ninety-eight percent of a killdeer’s diet are ground-dwelling critters such as beetles, ticks, mosquito larvae, flies, snails, spiders, earthworms, caterpillars and grasshoppers, although they also eat small amounts of weed seeds. They forage in areas with short vegetation, including fields, golf courses, beach dunes, airports and large lawns. Sometimes they stamp the ground or shake their foot in water to stir up insects.

A killdeer in Huron Village on May 25, 2021. Killdeer are the only plover with a double breast band. (Photo: Richard George)

Viewed head-on, killdeer appear to have four dark bands. (Photo: Richard George)

During the breeding season, killdeer are most active during the day, but the rest of the year killdeer often sleep through the day and forage at night. This behavior makes sense as there are more insects at night and fewer predators. Killdeer need some light to see, so they are most nocturnal when the moon is nearly full. You might also see them at night on lighted playing fields or in parking lots.

A killdeer in flight in March 2021 displays its white wing stripe. (Photo: Richard George)

Adult killdeer defend their nests against predators using distraction displays. Because killdeer are ground-nesting birds, they suffer heavy nest and hatching mortality. More than half of their nests fail. To combat this, when nesting killdeer spot an intruder from far away, they feign a broken wing and flop along the ground dragging a wing to lure the predator away from the nest. When the predator is about 100 yards from the nest, the bird suddenly flies away.

A family of killdeer on May 25, 2021. (Photo: Richard George)

If a predator such as a fox sneaks up close to the nest, though, the killdeer might resort to direct aggressive behavior. This response is used only as a last resort because it is often unsuccessful. The loudly screaming killdeer rushes off the nest toward the intruder, holds its wings away from the body and puffs out it feathers. Then the bird lunges at the intruder’s face in an attempt to scare it away. If the predator is a fox, for example, the fox is likely to pounce on and eat the lunging killdeer. The eggs will likely be destroyed too. But if the intruder is another bird or a cow meandering in a cow pasture, the lunging behavior is typically successful.

A killdeer wades in North Cambridge on March 14, 2022. (Photo: Richard George)

The killdeer gets its name from its piercing call, which people write as killdee, killdee or deedeedee. In September or October, flocks of 20 or more killdeer may congregate in fields. By November, most have flown to the Southern United States, where they will spend the winter. The killdeer population in the United States is declining, but not severely enough for it to be considered a threatened species.

Killdeer blend in well with their surroundings and are often hidden in grass, so they can be difficult to spot. If you have the pleasure of seeing one, take delight in the moment. As the writer Lynn Thomson said in “Birding with Yeats”: “The sharp thrill of seeing [killdeer] reminded me of childhood happiness … a kind of euphoria we adults manage to shut out most of the time.”

A pair of killdeer in Huron Village on Aug. 6, 2021. (Photo: Richard George)

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Seen nearby

Cellophane bees are back! This one was seen April 8 at Oak Grove Cemetery in Medford. Look for these bees in April in sandy areas near red oak trees.

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Have you taken photos of our urban wild things? Send your images to Cambridge Day, and we may use them as part of a future feature. Include the photographer’s name and the general location where the photo was taken.


Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.

This post was updated April 8, 2023, to correct a photo credit.