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Bird Bits: Killdeer, the plover with two black breast bands

Posted: August 16, 2013 - 12:02am

Until a killdeer moves, they are hard to spot, white below and brown above with cinnamon feather edging. The rump has an orange tint, the legs are pale pink and the large eye has a red ring. The alternating breast bands of black and white will, however, catch your attention.

It’s the two black breast bands that are the “tell” for a killdeer. And no, those adults aren’t raising another plover’s chicks; the little ones have a single breast band. The chicks hatch after 28 days of incubation, but the three to four chicks that hatch can walk out of the nest as soon as their feathers dry.

The killdeer is a shorebird that isn’t necessarily tied to the shoreline. They’ll pick out a weedy open lot, field, golf course, or flat rooftop. My experience with killdeer is from the semi-desert country of eastern Washington. Yet, I’m coming to grips with killdeer happily multiplying in wetter habitat, such as along the Airport Dike Trail, as observed by local birder Amy Clarke Courtney. In our area of steep, thick forests plunging into the water, it’s at the mouth of streams where open spaces are found.

I read that killdeer are also proficient swimmers; they can handle a swift stream.

The killdeer is an opportunistic forager dining on many invertebrates, such as earthworms, snails, beetles and aquatic insect larvae. They’ll also forage on seeds and frogs.

The little bird is often seen running in a hurry and then will stop to reconnoiter. It may bob up and down upon intrusion, before running ahead again. It’s cautious; when startled, it leaps into rapid flight and circles overhead, calling repeatedly “kill-deer, kill-deer.” If your next step were about to come down upon a nest, a scrape on bare ground, that burst into the air would stop you cold. They play a great helpless ruse, the broken-wing run, which draws away predators. In cattle country, a killdeer might fluff up, fan its tail and bend it over its head, then run at a bovine who wasn’t fazed by the broken-wing strategy. I wonder if they charge bears.

If you are upsetting the killdeer back off if they start to make sharp “dee” calls that build to a tea kettle boil.

• Patricia Wherry is the education chairperson for the Juneau Audubon Society. Contact her at education@juneau_audubon_society.org.

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