The killdeer is a familiar bird, perhaps as well known as the robin. Like the robin, it is a reliable sign of spring. The killdeer signals spring in places other than the robin, however. Robins hop around on our lawns, while killdeer run around bare spots in farmyards and shorelines; even, sometimes, on the Red River Greenway.
Robins don’t exactly hide their nests, but they locate them in protected places, favoring at least a little height above the ground and often choosing building overhangs or tree branches for concealment. Killdeer rely on camouflage and subterfuge.
The adult killdeer, its eggs and its young all blend into the plain background that the bird chooses to set upon. That’s the camouflage part. The subterfuge arises when the bird is disturbed at its nest. Then it takes off dragging a wing, an exaggerated performance to be sure, but one that draws predators away from the nest with its eggs or young.
This is called a “distraction display.”
This broken-wing act has strong appeal to human emotions, and the killdeer has become an icon of good parenting. This reputation is understandable, but it is not altogether appropriate. Killdeer are careless about where they place their nests. I’ve seen them stepped on by runners, driven over by trucks and plundered by crows.
Sometimes the plunder occurs when the killdeer has embarked on its act, so neither the camouflage nor the subterfuge is entirely effective.
Still, the killdeer is a common bird in most of North America south of the tree line.
The killdeer is a conspicuous part of any landscape in which it chooses to appear. A ground loving bird, it often stands out on bare, flat ground. From a distance, the bird appears two-toned, sparkling white below and a rich brown tending to chestnut on the upper parts. Two black bands cross the chest, the lower one thinner than the very prominent upper band that extends onto the neck and encircles it. The lower part of the head is white, and this extends around the back of the neck, as well. The face itself is brown with a white line over the eye and another in front of it. The bill is black. The eye is red.
This is a vivid and handsome bird.
Another field mark occurs on the lower back just ahead of the tail. This is a splash of yellow or orange. Not always visible, the bird shows this off in courtship display and when it leaves the nest. Perhaps the bit of color helps lure predators away.
You don’t need to see a killdeer to know it’s around. Killdeer are loud, often very loud. The call is a ringing “Kill-dee! Kill-dee! Kill-dee!” This gives the bird its name.
The killdeer is a kind of plover, one of about 70 species in the family, and closer to 90 if the closely related lapwings, the European branch, are included.
The plovers are a cosmopolitan family, occurring worldwide, except around the poles and in the Sahara Desert. Five species show up in our area. The killdeer is by far the most frequent here.
The smaller, grayer piping plover occurs in both North Dakota and Minnesota. This is a bird of sandy lake shores, such as occur at Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods, and river banks, such as the Missouri in central North Dakota, and alkaline wetlands, which are widespread in central and northwestern North Dakota.
The piping plover is a species in serious decline, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken measures to protect it. One of these is a kind of cage placed over the plover nests. The mesh allows the plovers to get in and out, but it deters such marauders as skunks and foxes, and beach walkers or ATV riders who see and avoid the cages.
Our other plovers are migrants that nest in the Arctic. The Grand Forks County bird list includes three of these, the semipalmated plover, the American golden plover and the black-bellied plover. The semipalmated is the most likely here. Large numbers pass through on migration, and migration begins early for the species, by mid-summer, so a semipalmated plover might be encountered through the summer.
Semipalmated refers to the bird’s feet, which are only partially webbed.
American golden plovers and black-bellied plovers pass through the area, too, but stop only briefly and aren’t often encountered — but are still worth watching for.
A sixth plover species occurs on some North Dakota lists. This is the mountain plover, a western bird. Theodore Roosevelt wrote of seeing this species near his Elkhorn Ranch in the North Dakota Badlands.