Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Killdeer
Nature Bulletin No. 482-A   February 24, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

One of the surest signs of spring is the sight of the first Killdeer or the sound of its plaintive call: "Kill-dee ! Kill-dee ! " That happens about now or a little later, every year. Of all our shorebirds, it is the first to arrive, just as it is the last to leave in autumn. The killdeer is also the most widely distributed and best known, breeding throughout North America from central Canada to central Mexico and wintering as far south as Venezuela and Peru.

Most of the shorebirds -- a long-legged, long-winged group which includes the phalaropes, curlews, snipes, sandpipers and plovers -- usually inhabit the edges of oceans, lakes, ponds, sloughs and streams. The killdeer, however, is a landlubber commonly found many miles from water on meadows, pastures, golf courses and, especially, plowed fields. It is a friend of the farmer because it feeds greedily on worms, grubs, grasshoppers, beetles, bugs and weevils -- many of them very injurious to crops.

The Killdeer is one of the plovers, which differ from sandpipers in having chunkier bodies, shorter thicker necks, larger eyes, and more conspicuous plumage. Also, its pigeon-like bill is not built for probing in mud or sand. Its white throat and underparts are boldly marked by a black band around the neck, another black band across the breast, and a third -- from eye to eye -- above its white forehead. The eye is surrounded by a red ring. The rump and upper tail feathers are orange- brown.

This bird is so easily alarmed, and then so noisy, that it was given the scientific name vociferous and has local names such as "squaller", "telltale" and "noisy plover". When a person approaches their nest, one or both parents put on a very convincing broken-wing act, screaming and fluttering away as if wounded, to beguile the intruder from the eggs or young. Frequently, however, one of them circles swiftly overhead, uttering loud strident cries. During the breeding season a long trill, by the male, is often heard.

The killdeer likes an open place for its nest, which is merely a shallow saucer-shaped depression on the ground, lined with grass or pebbles. Closely grazed pastures, cultivated fields, or barren areas such as gravel bars and beaches are favorite locations, We discovered one in an abandoned parking space near Maywood but, after watching the "crippled" antics of the female, we had trouble finding it again. The eggs are so camouflaged with irregular blackish blotches and scrawls that, from a few feet away, they were indistinguishable from the gravel surface around them.

Like other shorebirds, the killdeer lays four large eggs which are pointed so that, when placed with the smaller ends together at the center of the nest, she can cover them. When hatched, as soon as the moisture has dried from their down, the fluffy little young leave the nest in search of food and, like their parents, can run swiftly. Their coloring resembles that of the adults but those bold markings -- instead of betraying them, as you might expect -- actually help to conceal them when motionless.

The killdeer has benefited greatly from the changes which have occurred since the country became settled and farmed. It commonly follows the plow and the cultivator to pick up worms and grubs. Croplands and pastures furnish an abundance of insects. It is a very swift and graceful bird in the air or on the ground. To "run like a killdeer" is a common saying.

No longer a game bird, like snipe and woodcock, it is protected now.

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