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Oh Killdeer! by Ranger Seth (April 2024)

Two birds wading in shallow water.

If you have ever been hiking through Sycamore Grove Park near the creek, chances are you've heard an incredibly unique bird call before seeing where it came from. This specific sound is very distinct, with a rapid-fire short chirp. Looking up at the sky or in a tree will lower your chances of spotting the source of the sound. But rather, hiding amongst the ground in the gravel near the water is where you will start to see movement. A small bird begins to make quick sprints effortlessly amongst the rocks. This bird in question is called a Killdeer. 

Unveiling the Killdeer: Characteristics, Traits, and Habitat 

Killdeer are classified as plovers, meaning they are a wide group of wading birds. As a smaller-sized bird, they have about a 23-25-inch wingspan and only weigh 2.5 to 4.3 oz. Their breast is white feathered with brown wings. Their neck has two black rings and one white ring. Their heads have a mixture of brown, white, and black patterns. They blend in so well with their environment that most people have claimed not to see them until the bird moves. In some cases, hikers have almost stepped on them before they ran away.

While Killdeers are native to California, they can also be found all over North and Central America and the northernmost parts of South America. They can be seen in most environments and regions but are commonly observed along gravel shore beds near water. Killdeer have been spotted in tall grass, golf courses, driveways, parking lots, and suburban front lawns outside this preferred habitat.

Nesting Season - Adapting to Survive 

Killdeer spend much of their time on the ground, including nesting season! They make (or take advantage of) a simple “scrape nest,” a depression in the ground among the gravel and rocks. Unfortunately, Killdeer and their eggs have a wide range of predators. The list consists of all birds of prey: gulls, crows, ravens, snakes, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, domestic cats, raccoons, skunks, opossums, and wild boars. Fortunately, the Killdeer has some tricks up its sleeve (or wing!) to help protect its eggs and itself from harm. The first line of defense is its coloring patterns to help them hide in plain sight.

The black and white striped patterns on their neck is to help break up their silhouette to help the Killdeer to look less like a bird.” -Interpretive Ranger Christine Cardosi, LARPD Open Space.

The eggs have a speckled camouflage coloration, making them look more like the gravel they are lying on. They will decorate their nests with white clam shells and pebbles to help the nest blend in. The eggs are cone-shaped so that if they are ever kicked or dislodged, they will roll in a wide circle right back to where they started. Finally, one of Killdeer's most unique tricks is a misdirection act. For example, a fox sneaks around a Killdeer nest, looking to make an easy meal from some unhatched eggs. Once Mama Killdeer spots the fox approaching, she folds her wing to pretend it is broken and cries out distress calls. Mama Killdeer will then start to limp away slowly. Seeing and hearing this, the fox may be tricked into thinking that this injured bird will make a much better snack than these small eggs. With this act, Mama Killdeer will lure the fox far away from the nest. Once Mama Killdeer feels that the fox is far enough away from the nest, she will spread her wings and fly away, leaving the fox hungry and confused. Mama Killdeer will return to her nest to find her eggs safe and sound.  

Although Killdeer are seasonally monogamous, it is common for Killdeer to mate for life as well. A pair of Killdeer can raise two broods a year. The nest, on average, will have four eggs in it. Both the males and females look after the nest. They will take turns incubating and shading the nest depending on the current temperature. In addition to shading, another technique to keep their eggs cool is to dip their feathers in water and lie on their nest.    

When the fledglings hatch, they are precocial, meaning they can see, walk, and feed themselves right away. Killdeer fledglings grow so quickly that they are fully fledged in roughly 31 days (about 1 month). The fledglings can even start doing test flights at only 25 days old. But until they have all their feathers, the parents will tuck their young under their wings for warmth and protection. Both parents will care for their young until they leave the nest.

Author's Note

The next time you are hiking near the creek in Sycamore Grove Park, try to spot a Killdeer in the gravel. Watch your step—you do not want to disturb its camouflaged nest. Observe to preserve. 

An owl perches on a podium where a person gestures, with chalkboards and diagrams in the background.
Photo Credit: Volunteer Wally Wood.
  • Dale Wood, California Ornithologist and father of LARPD Open Space Volunteer Wally Wood had an interesting experience with a Killdeer in the Salt Flats in Southern California. In the 1970s, while hiking, he left some of his boot prints in the salt flat. A week later, when he returned, he discovered that a Killdeer had laid 4 eggs in the heel impression of one of his boot prints. The bird had also placed small white clam shells around the eggs. That was the extent of the nest. 
    Note from the Author: 

The Killdeer was one of the first animals I interacted with when I became a park ranger at Sycamore Grove Park. I was on patrol in the truck on Sycamore Trail when I saw something moving in the middle of the trail. It looked to me like an injured bird. “I need to catch this little bird and get it the help it needs,” I thought. I got out of my truck to approach the bird, and it began to limp away. My empathy grew as it limped farther away from me as I approached. Then (at the time), I thought a miracle happened! The bird jumped up and flew away. Later that day, I learned that this was simply the average technique of a Killdeer, and it had tricked me. She must have had a nest nearby. This interaction sparked my interest in these birds, and they quickly became my favorite bird at Sycamore Grove Park.