Many species of birds will suffer a false injury in order to distract a predator. This is especially true for ground nesters, where their eggs and young are very vulnerable. The champion of these forgers is the Killdeer.
The kildir not only lays its eggs on the ground, but makes no attempt to keep them hidden. They do not hide their eggs under a bush or in thick grass, but lay them in the open air. I found a Killdeer’s nest in the middle of a dirt road and another at the edge of a busy sidewalk, but more often than not these birds lay their eggs in old fields and pastures.
If a non-predatory mammal like, say, a cow, approaches, the bird will fly towards it while screaming loudly, in an attempt to change its course. It usually works. The cows don’t want any problems. They just want to be left alone. A predator, like a fox, however, is another story. This is when the theater really begins.
When approaching a more serious threat, in addition to shouting loudly, the bird will flee a short distance and immediately settle down, acting as if it were sitting on a nest. The purpose of this move is to trick the marauder into believing that this is the true location of the delicious eggs. Terrestrial predators rarely fall into this trap, but humans usually do. (Probably because we only use ten percent of our brains.)
If the false nest trick doesn’t work, the bird will embark on a full-fledged broken wing act. The Killdeer will spread its wings and tail and open its beak as if it were tired, stressed and helpless. FYI: Instead of calling it the broken wing act, birders prefer the term “distraction.” Why? This is because they doubt the birds know what a broken wing looks like.
Bird watchers are probably right, but come on. Can bird nerds just stop caring about semantics? We understand that the birds did not study the broken wing routine in drama school. It’s just an expression, kind of like “meeting a friend at the store”. No one imagines that two people collide in the toothpaste aisle… except maybe the bird watchers.
Does the broken wing trick really work? Yes, it really is. For a hungry predator, a few eggs would make a good snack, but an adult Killdeer is a hearty meal. When he sees the “helpless” bird, he can’t help but go for the biggest prize. The big bad predator changes course and walks towards the injured bird, only to see it fly away at the last second, while hearing it scream, “na-na na-na boo-boo” as it goes.
Meanwhile, while all the imitations and taunts continue, the other Killdeer parent will secretly slip into the nest and continue to keep the eggs warm, as if nothing unusual has happened. He’s already seen the act, several times.
Like the Bobwhites and the Whip-Poor-Wills, the Killdeer are so named because of their vocalizations. When upset, which they always seem to be, they call “kill the deer, kill the deer”. These talkative birds are frequently found around inland farms, but the Kildir are, in fact, shorebirds, specifically plovers. But unlike its docile cousin, the piping plover, a bird with limited breeding range, the kildir breeds just about anywhere in North America.
They are not difficult either. While piping plovers battle swimmers for the best sandy beaches, killdeers are just as happy to hang out in a dirt parking lot or gravel pit. I love Killdeer, but even I have to admit that piping plovers have better taste when it comes to real estate.
Many species of birds perform the broken wing number, Fred, but the master is the Killdeer. Anytime you are near an open area and hear “Kill the deer, kill the deer,” you will know there is a Killdeer nearby. If the call gets intense, you can also assume that there is a predator nearby. The bird will call and then deploy the act of the broken wing, and if the act is successful, the next sound you hear will be the classic victory sound, which, of course, is “na-na na-na boo -boo. “
If you don’t believe me, ask any group of first graders. They will tell you.
This column is written by Mike O’Connor and the staff at Bird Watcher’s general store in Orleans. Original illustrations are provided by Cathy Clark. If you have a question for bird experts, please email it to [email protected] or call 508-255-6974.