Welcome to our very first Bird of the Week! There are so many amazing birds out there (more than 10,000 species in the world), that each week I want to highlight a new bird to enjoy. Some will be familiar species we might look at in new ways, while others may be birds you’ve heard of but have never had the opportunity to see, and still others can be birds you’ve never even heard of.
For this first bird of the week, I’m revisiting the very first bird I ever really learned about – the killdeer.
Scientific Name: Charadrius vociferus
Scientific Family: Charadriidae (Plovers)
Habitat: A wide variety of open fields with relatively low vegetation, including agricultural areas, along railroads or near airports, in plains and on golf courses, scrub urban fields and gravel parking lots or driveways.
Range: Year-round through the south and central United States, along the Pacific Coast and into northern Mexico, as well as the Caribbean and the western coast of Ecuador and Peru. Summer range extends north into Canada but not the harshest Arctic habitats, and southern winter range extends into Central America and northern South America in Colombia and Venezuela.
These plovers are instantly recognizable by their bold banding, with a broad black band across the forehead, another around the throat and the third across the breast. These bands contrast sharply with the bird’s white underparts and the tan-buff-reddish upperparts. Their pale legs are medium-long, and when they flit and flare their tails (which they often do as a “broken wing” display to distract predators from the nest), they show bold rusty coloring on the rump, with a white, buff and black tail. Males and females look alike, and young killdeers are little balls of gray-tan fluff with large heads and long, ungainly legs.
When they aren’t agitated, these birds also have characteristic postures. They stand upright, carefully watching their surroundings, and occasionally dip or bob their heads with a quick jerk. They can be quite dramatic in personality, and get offended easily – letting you know about it with their loud, excited, squeak-like calls with a two-note cadence that tapers in the second note.
The killdeer holds a special place on my life list as the first “real” bird I learned to identify. I grew up in northern Michigan and had seen plenty of blue jays, northern cardinals and American robins as early as I can remember, but those were everyday birds that I hardly noticed. When I went on long walks with my Grandpa, however, he’d point out things I’d never seen before, and one was the killdeer. I thought the name was funny, even that he might have made it up, but I’ve never forgotten seeing and hearing these distinctive birds with him. To this day seeing a killdeer makes me smile, and I’m grateful that their range is so widespread that no matter where I live, I can still see their nervous antics and hear their calls that take me back to my childhood and how I enjoyed birds decades before I ever would call myself a birder.
What do you enjoy most about the killdeer? Share your stories in the comments!