The killdeer is a quirky species of North American plover. They are often seen gathered in flocks on gravel or paved parking lots or in fields of low-cut grass, where they forage and socialize well into the night. These birds have adapted well to living near people, commonly even nesting near abundant human activity.
Killdeers prefer relatively open nesting sites in an elevated area with little vegetation. Nests are typically located on a hill or knoll in a sandy or gravelly area. It is also not uncommon for nests to be along roadsides, in parking lots, or near people’s homes.
In this complete guide to killdeer nesting, we will take a closer look at the birds' nesting habits, what time of year they lay their eggs, and how they raise their young. Read on to learn more!
Killdeer sat on the nest with eggs inside
Killdeers build simple nests that are essentially just scrapes in the ground. They often make several scrapes close to one another, but generally only choose one as the nesting site. The creation of multiple scrapes is likely to confuse potential predators.
Killdeers generally nest on slightly raised terrain, such as the top of a hill. This behavior likely reduces the threat of flooding, plus it offers the birds a commanding view of their surroundings. Nesting sites are not heavily vegetated. Low grasses or no vegetation at all are most common.
Historically, it seems the killdeer preferred to nest on sandbars and gravel near rivers and coastlines. Today, nesting sites are commonly found in gravel parking lots and on road shoulders. Open graveled rooftops are used as well.
However, rooftops are not ideal locations since nestlings typically lack a way to get down without human intervention.
Killdeer nests are simple nests and usually well camouflaged
Killdeer nests are scrapes in the ground often lined with white objects. Materials may include bits of shell, rocks, plant stems, bone, crayfish carapace, plastic, and cigarette filters. The bird's propensity towards white objects is likely a way to camouflage the nest by blending it with the mottled sandy-gravel surface.
Scrapes are often free of such material until laying begins. Killdeers begin adding to their nest during the laying and incubation processes. You will also notice that killdeer create multiple scrapes adjacent to the nest they use - a tactic that helps with camouflage.
Nesting typically begins in early March and ends around November in the southern United States where winter and spring climates are mild. However, northernmost populations, such as those in central Canada, may only nest between June and late July. On the other hand, killdeer populations in Mexico and the Caribbean can nest year-round.
Killdeer sat on the nest with two chicks
How long a killdeer nests is largely determined by its range. Birds residing in Mexico and the Caribbean have the longest nesting season since they can theoretically breed year-round. Killdeers in the southern United States also have a considerably long nesting season, between March and November. The first clutch is typically laid between March and mid-April. Second, and even third, broods may follow the first.
Killdeer nesting season is shorter in the northern reaches of their range. Birds residing in Michigan typically lay somewhere between April and June, while populations farther north may only lay in June and July.
Shorter breeding seasons often result in mated pairs only producing one clutch rather than two or three. If birds in these regions have a second brood it is likely due to the first being unsuccessful.
Killdeer protecting the nest with eggs inside
Killdeers build their nests by digging out depressions in the ground. Both males and females participate in what is known as a scrape ceremony. The male typically initiates the ceremony by lowering his breast to the ground and scraping with his feet. The female then joins in, approaching the male with her head lowered as he moves out of the scrape. The pair will repeat this behavior multiple times in a row, taking turns to scrape out the nest.
The birds begin this ceremony seven to ten days before laying. They make several scrapes in the same area before choosing one as the nest site. Lining materials are not added to the nest until the first eggs are laid.
Baby killdeer typically leave the nest around 31 days after hatching. Although, they may continue to be cared for by their parents for another ten days.
Interestingly enough, killdeer do not feed their young. Shortly after hatching, chicks follow their parents from the nest to feeding sites where they begin foraging on their own.
Killdeer chick walking about
Killdeer typically have one to three broods per year. One clutch is typical for northernmost populations, while two or three are more common for birds nesting in the southern United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Killdeers often remain in or, in the case of populations that migrate, return to the same breeding area year after year. Previous nesting sites are commonly reused, but eggs are not necessarily laid in a previous scrape. A pair will initiate a new scraping ceremony, creating several sites adjacent to one another before choosing one.
A recently hatched killdeer chick
Killdeer eggs are ovate and generally cream, tan, or yellow-gray. They are mottled with dark brown blotches that are more noticeable at the larger end of the egg. Sizes average between 38.2 mm in length and 26.8 mm in width or 37.9 mm in length and 27.1 mm in width.
A close up of 4 killdeer eggs in the nest
The southernmost killdeer populations generally lay their first eggs in early March. Northern residents do not lay until mid-April at the earliest.
Killdeers are unlikely to use nest boxes. They prefer scraping out a depression in the ground to lay their eggs. However, if you have a low, flat gravel roof or pebbled landscaping, you may attract killdeer to your yard.
Killdeer calling out
Killdeers are active during the day and at night, often foraging at dusk and long into the night. However, during incubation and brooding one member of a pair will stay on the nest - at least until ambient temperatures are high enough that constant care becomes unnecessary.
It is not uncommon for killdeer to nest in backyards or near human activity in general. Some birds will lay their eggs in a gravel parking lot or along a busy highway. If your backyard offers the habitat features the killdeer prefers - raised gravelly sites with low vegetation - you may very well find a pair nesting there.
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