Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) nests always bring to mind the killdeers’ broken-wing displays.
A killdeer will employ a broken-wing distraction when it notices a predator (killdeer consider humans predators too) near its nest or hatchlings. Moving away from the nest or chicks, the killdeer will appear to be injured and struggle on the ground in front of the perceived or actual threat. It will drag one or both wings and emit a distress call. The bird looks as though it can barely move, let alone fly. The predator assumes the “injured” bird can be easily caught and follows. Always staying one step ahead of the pursuer, the killdeer leads the intruder further and further away from the nest or the babies, hidden under a bush or crouching (flattened) on the ground. Once the killdeer leads the menace far enough away from the nest or chicks, it flies off leaving the hungry pursuer to wonder about the killdeer’s rapid “recovery”.
Killdeer often build their nests in open fields where cattle or horses graze. Unlike the usual killdeer predators such as snakes, coyotes, skunks, weasels or foxes, cattle and horses are not interested in killdeer eggs or hatchlings. Rather these large grazers, unaware of the killdeer, step on nests as they move about eating. With these animals killdeer employ a different strategy to protect their nests, since cows and horses will not pursue an injured bird. The killdeer fluffs itself up with its tail over its head and runs at the intruding horse or cow in an attack mode in an attempt to change the path of this huge animals away from the nest. The ploy works!
Recently I did have an unusual experience with a killdeer exhibiting a broken-wing display. I was walking in an area at Baum Lake where many killdeer have nests. Usually at that spot several birds exhibit the distraction near me. As I move down the path birds desert me as I get far enough away from their nests and others begin their attempt to divert my attention when I approached their nesting sites. One day a single killdeer got in front of me in that area and began its injured display. No other killdeer joined in to protect their nests. This single bird remained in front of me for about a quarter of a mile. When I turned away from the killdeer at a Y in the trail it flew back in front of me and continued to act distressed. This behavior continued for several hundred more yards as I walked down a road to the parking lot and my car. Finally the killdeer flew off in the direction we came. I could see it returning to the area where it picked me up about a half mile away. Strange! I have no explanation for this unusual behavior. The only far-fetched idea that I could think of was that this killdeer was the “designated distraction”. Instead of twenty birds all attempting to lure me from their nests, this one bird was responsible for leading me from all the killdeer nesting sites along the path. The other killdeer could then remain with their eggs. But why did it continue its behavior long after I left the area and was on a paved road? I welcome any other ideas or input.
These “injured” killdeer were all photographed at Baum Lake (Shasta County CA).