Killdeer

Charadrius vociferus

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Photo of a killdeer standing on a chert gravel surface.
An adult killdeer is dark brown above and white below, with two black bands on the breast.
Jim Rathert
Family

Charadriidae (plovers) in the order Charadriiformes (shorebirds, gulls, terns)

Description

Adults are dark brown above and white below, with two black bands on the breast. Young, recently hatched killdeer have only one dark breast band and closely resemble the semipalmated plover. Adults create a distraction display intended to distract the viewer from the nest site or hidden young. They act as if they have a broken wing, move across the ground away from the nest, and make plaintive sounds as if in great pain. During this display, the bright orange rump and base of the tail, the white wing stripe, and the black-and-white tail bands are prominent. Flight call is a loud, shrill, repeated killdeer or k’dew.

Similar species: Seven plovers are known from Missouri, and the killdeer is one of the most common. By observing its foraging behavior, you can train your eye to distinguish between plovers and other shorebirds such as sandpipers. Plovers run, stop abruptly, and pick up food — very different from the bill-probing of sandpipers and other shorebirds.

Size

Length: 10 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of a killdeer standing over its nest.
Killdeer
The killdeer's two breast bands are very distinctive.

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Photo of a killdeer standing near water.
Killdeer
The killdeer is a familiar “shorebird,” but we usually don’t see it near shores.

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Photo of a killdeer in flight.
Killdeer In Flight
The killdeer’s well-known flight call is a loud, shrill, repeated “killdeer” or “k’dew.”

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Photo of a killdeer walking on a grassy lawn.
Killdeer
Killdeer prefer open, flat, relatively dry areas where grass is very short.

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Photo of a killdeer chick.
Killdeer Chick
Young, recently hatched killdeer have only one dark breast band and closely resemble the semipalmated plover.

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Photo of a killdeer performing “broken wing” act.
Killdeer
Parent killdeer scream and use a “broken-wing act” to lure possible predators away from their nests.

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Photo of a killdeer flashing bright orange tail feathers.
Killdeer
Flashing bright rusty-orange rump and tail feathers is an eye-catching part of a parent killdeer’s distraction display.

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Photo of a killdeer incubating eggs.
Killdeer
Killdeer populations have been declining continent-wide.

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Photo of a pair of killdeer mating.
Killdeer Mating
In Missouri, killdeer are summer breeding residents.

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Photo of a killdeer nest with three eggs.
Killdeer Nest and Eggs
Killdeer eggs are dull buffy-colored with thick spots and blotches of brown.

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Photo of a killdeer on its nest.
Killdeer Incubating Eggs
Killdeer nests are shallow depressions scratched into the bare ground.

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Photo of a killdeer on its nest, beginning distraction display.
Killdeer Distraction Display
Performing a distraction display before a predator puts a parent killdeer at grave risk.

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Photo of two killdeer chicks.
Killdeer Chicks
Like most other ground-nesters and waders, killdeer young are precocial.

Killdeer nesting

Killdeer sitting on rocky ground. Black and white striped breast is prominent.
Killdeer nesting
A killdeer at Hughes Mountain Natural Area
Habitat and conservation

Although killdeer are plovers, and plovers are typically shorebirds, the killdeer is common in fields and other dry uplands. It forages and nests in and around flooded fields, golf courses, lawns, sports fields, muddy shorelines, gravel parking lots, and farm ponds. It prefers open, flat, relatively dry areas where grass is very short.

Foods

Forages in open areas with no or very short vegetation for insects, worms, snails, and other invertebrates. Plovers usually forage on drier parts of mudflats, plowed fields, shallow-flooded fields, or short grassy areas such as lawns and golf courses. Visual predators, they tilt forward and run a short distance, pause, pick up prey from the ground, and repeat the search process. Their bills are larger at the tip than in the middle, somewhat like a dove or pigeon bill.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide. In summer, common in every county, but most numerous in the Big Rivers Natural Division (along the Mississippi and Missouri river floodplains) and in the Mississippi Lowlands (Bootheel). In winter, they are most numerous in the southern part of the state.

Status

Common migrant. Common summer resident statewide, but especially in the Bootheel region and the floodplains of big rivers. As a winter resident, uncommon in southern Missouri; rare in the north. Populations have been steadily declining continent-wide. They are poisoned when they eat insects contaminated by pesticides, and they frequently die in collisions with cars and buildings.

Life cycle

Nests are shallow depressions scratched into the bare ground, often decorated with rocks and other objects. Parents use a “broken-wing act” to lure away possible predators. Like most other ground-nesters and waders, killdeer young are precocial: At hatching, they are covered with fluffy down and can run around very soon. Killdeer migrate from Canada into northern South America, with much of the Lower 48 states and Mexico as year-round range.

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Photo of a killdeer nest with three eggs.
Killdeer Nest and Eggs

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Photo of a killdeer on its nest.
Killdeer Incubating Eggs

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Photo of a killdeer on its nest, beginning distraction display.
Killdeer Distraction Display

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Photo of two killdeer chicks.
Killdeer Chicks
Human connections

Killdeer have adapted well to human-altered habitats and often live quite close to us, foraging and nesting in grassy lawns, industrial parks, and even atop city buildings. If you’re looking for them, listen first for their distinctive calls. They fly in circles with pointed, narrow, stiff wings.

Ecosystem connections

As predators, killdeer play a role in limiting populations of the various insects and other invertebrates they eat. As prey, killdeer frequently end up as food for mammals, raptors, and reptiles. Their famous “broken wing act” evolved as a response to predation — always a threat to ground-nesters.