Killdeer Trills, Lies Flat, Fans Tail and Spreads Wings: Why?

If you live near any grassy flat areas, especially ones with a sandy gravel patch nearby, you likely have seen Killdeer. These slightly-larger-than-a-robin-sized Sandpipers are common inland and don’t only live near water. In fact in southern Ontario they’re often found in school yards and near baseball diamonds. Their two black necklaces on a white front make them easy to identify. Their panicked cries of kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee as they fly in circles overhead explains their common name. Common though they may be, I watched a Killdeer do something different this past week.

A Killdeer Trills

Photo of Killdeer Courting on NaturalCrooksDotCom

The Killdeer I was watching ran out from a mostly empty garden bed poorly mulched with wood chips. It didn’t seem particularly interested in me. What had drawn me close was an odd trilling call I had heard. I wasn’t familiar with the call and was a bit surprised that it seemed to have come from the Killdeer. It sounded a bit like the “Aggressive Trill” on AllaboutBirds but was softer and less stressed. A few minutes later I watched the Killdeer repeat its call.

A Killdeer Displays Flattened on the Ground

The Killdeer ran forward maybe a metre (three feet) onto the grass then suddenly stopped. It dropped flat, spread its tail which showed off the rusty colours beautifully, and partially cocked its wings. It trilled.

Photo of Killdeer Eye on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Killdeer eyes are a lovely colour.

I turned away from it, looking back towards the garden bed, wondering if it was distracting me from eggs or chicks. (I didn’t really think it was paying much attention to me though. I was still quite far away.)

Seeing nothing, I turned to take a photo of the Killdeer. I saw it repeat the same behaviour, though I stayed still. It ran maybe a metre, stopped, dropped, and displayed. It did this 4 more times.

In case there were eggs or chicks getting cold or upset, I kept walking along the path past the bird. It never flew.

Photo of Killdeer Peripheral Vision On NaturalCrooksDotCom

Killdeer don’t have eyes on the back of their heads but this one can see well behind itself.

In Search of Why the Killdeer Displayed

Once home, I went online hoping to find out more about what I had seen. In the past, I have been treated to a Killdeer’s “broken wing” display. That’s the one where it runs, limping and dragging one wing close to the ground as if wounded. It pauses just out of pounce range, waits till you get closer, then scurries another few metres away. This was not what the bird I watched was doing.

It took a bit of poking around but on the website showing an electronic copy of Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds I found descriptions of what I had seen. In a section reportedly contributed by Charles Wendell Townsend, published in 1929 by the Smithsonian, it says:

“Of [Killdeer] courtship display on the ground Theed Pearse (1924) writes:

“On two occasions that I saw one getting up he ran a short distance and then went through what looked like a sexual display. Crouching on the ground and leaning toward one side with wings lowered and then opening the tail in fan shape over the back so that the cinnamon tail coverts came conspicuously into view, at the same time uttering a trilling note.”

There is a second similar description by Aretas Sanders (1926).

So my Killdeer probably wasn’t the slightest bit interested in me. Instead, there was probably another Killdeer watching and perhaps even judging the interesting display.

I think I’ll have to go back and look for chicks later this summer!

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Has a Killdeer ever led you up the garden path—away from its nest? Or have you seen this ground-level courtship display? Please share your experiences with a comment.

6 thoughts on “Killdeer Trills, Lies Flat, Fans Tail and Spreads Wings: Why?

  1. I saw a killdeer this morning near Appleton, WI. As I approached it was sitting on the gravel lot and then it lowered itself close to the ground spread it’s wings and fanned it’s tail. I found your website helpful as I have never seen anything like that around here before.

    • I hadn’t seen it before either. It was interesting to me to learn that the display is a type of courtship behaviour.

      I have seen other birds sometimes crouch and flare their wings over anthills. They are encouraging ants to climb aboard and attack the little parasites on the bird and hopefully carry them away.

      Thanks for your comment! It’s interesting to know this behaviour is happening so far away from here. (And I hope it’s not as scorching hot there today as it is here!)

  2. I was fortunate enough to see two killdeer do the broken wing display trying to draw me away from their three chicks that were scurrying along my garden row ducking under plants. That took place where I have lawn chairs under trees so I was really blessed. God’s creation is marvelous

  3. I live in Minnesota. A few days ago, a killdeer in our yard did the semi spread of its wings while laying tilted to one side and then spread its tail. It did this several times as my husband and I walked in the yard. We didn’t see a nest anywhere.
    We both happened to be wearing light blue that day.
    Perhaps that one liked light blue.

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