For Killdeer Eggs And Young, It Does
Image with arrow pointing to killdeer nest

Arrow points to the killdeer on its nest (Bob Sargent/DNR)

By Dr. Bob Sargent 

Images showing the killdeer luring the biologist away from its nest site

From its stony nest, the killdeer begins its act by luring the biologist (aka potential predator) away from the site, then escalates to a broken-wing performance in hopes the predator has forgotten to look for the eggs. (Bob Sargent/DNR)

On March 31, Georgia DNR pilot Ryan Buller and I were returning by helicopter to Fulton County Airport after two long days of surveying eagle nests in southwest Georgia. As Ryan settled the chopper onto the apron by the hangar, I noticed a brown patch that looked out of place in a field of stones forming a protective barrier around a nearby fuel tank.

While waiting through the usual two-minute sequence to power down the helicopter, I raised my binoculars and discovered that the brown patch was alive. It was a killdeer holding fast – despite the roar of the helicopter no more than 70 feet away – to its nest site.

The killdeer is a species of plover, which is a type of shorebird. But instead of beaches, killdeer are more likely seen running around on lawns, sports fields and airports as they search for insects. It is not unusual for them to lay their well-camouflaged three to five eggs in gravel or stones on airfields and construction sites. The dedicated birds then incubate them for 24-28 days, even as cars drive by, planes taxi past and helicopters take off and land nearby.

Killdeer chicks are precocial, which means they are ready to run behind their parents and feed themselves shortly after hatching.

But if a potential predator gets too close to the nest, the incubating parent breaks into a performance that initially involves slowly strolling away from the site while coyly looking back to see if the predator is following.

Once the adult has drawn the predator away from the precious eggs, the bird proceeds to act two: pretending to have suddenly broken a wing (watch).

The killdeer will lower and drag the wing on the ground as it continues to slow-walk and weave away from the nest. This distraction display can also include tail fanning, flashing colorful patches of plumage, fluttering feathers and pitiful-sounding calls.

Once the adult has succeeded in luring the predator well clear of the eggs, the performance suddenly ends and the bird launches into flight, bringing down the curtain on another successful performance in survival.

Dr. Bob Sargent is a program manager with DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section, leader of the state’s annual surveys of nesting bald eagles and a longtime ornithologist.

Top: Showcasing nature’s camouflage, the killdeer eggs and stones almost merge into one. (Bob Sargent/DNR)