For the Birds Radio Program: Killdeer

Original Air Date: April 10, 1987

Laura of course has a soft spot for Killdeer, but apparently so did John James Audubon.

Audio missing


![Killdeer] ( “Killdeer”) Killdeers

(Recording of a Killdeer)

Killdeer are back in town, running on quick legs over church lawns and in the mud by lakes and rivers. Killdeer return early each spring– they come in with the first flights of robins and bluebirds, and it’s often hard to understand how they can survive March and early April in the Northland, with the inevitable April Fool’s Day snowstorm or icestorm. After those balmy days we had around the first day of spring, the sudden drop to zero must have been hard to take for a bird that eats a diet of 98% insects and worms. At least robins can eat some crab apples or berries during cold snaps. During the worst days, Killdeers often move closer to lakes and streams where the ground is thawed. But as soon as the temperature climbs to the 30’s again, they return to church lawns and pastures.

The Killdeer is probably one of the most familiar of all birds in Duluth, since it is conspicuous on softball fields and picnic areas– any large expanse of short grass, mud, or sand. It’s famous for its crippled-bird act. If a potential predator approaches a killdeer nest, whichever parent is on guard duty at the time will circle overhead until the enemy gets close–then the bird will drop down, invariably on the side away from the nest, and keel over on its side, moaning piteously. It will drag its wing on the ground and move slowly enough to lure the intruder away, always managing to keep just out of reach of a curious dog or kid. As soon as the intruder has been lured a safe distance away from the nest–about 100 yards–the bird rights itself and flies off, good as new, but alert and ready to repeat the act if the intruder changes course and again approaches the nest.

Killdeer are surprisingly aware of just what kind of danger an intruder imposes–if it’s a person, dog, fox, raccoon, or other possible predator, the bird pulls this crippled act. But if it’s a cow, bison, deer, or other herbivore, the killdeer seems to understand that its babies aren’t in danger of being eaten–they might be trampled to death instead. The Killdeer defends its nest from herbivores by standing directly in front of the nest squawking and fluttering its wings in the face of the heavy-hoofed marauder. Running herds of cattle have been parted right down the middle by a lone killdeer defending its nest.

Although the defense of its nest is elaborate, the killdeer’s nest itself is a simple affair–a scrape in the ground, usually but not always lined with a few stones, leaves, twigs, or debris.

John James Audubon killed tens of thousands of birds during his career as artist, bird collector, and sport hunter, but he had a soft spot for Killdeers. Once he caught a small boy taking baby killdeers to use for fishing bait. Audubon wrote: “I begged him to restore the poor things to their parents, which he reluctantly did. Never had I felt more happy than I did when I saw them run off and hide under cover of the stones.”

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Audubon, but maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

(Recording of a Killdeer)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”