Sandy Hook and New York Harbor just got a bit more sociable. The Killdeer have arrived and are looking for a good spot to lay a few eggs to raise a family.
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) belong to the shorebird family of plovers. Similar to all plovers, killdeer have compact, chubby bodies, with large eyes on a dove-like head.
Yet, these plovers are no lovers of a shoreline. The Killdeer have become very successfully adapted to modern urban life in and around New York City. They can be found nesting not only in traditional places like mudflats and meadows from Jamaica Bay down to Sandy Hook Bay, but nowadays on lawns, golf courses, construction sites and even along the side of gravel roads and parking lots.
While the bird likes to live on the edge, it’s no dope. Killdeer go where ample food can easily be found. These areas provide a plentiful population of beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and other insects, the majority of the killdeer diet, along with ticks, mosquito larvae, worms, spiders, and snails. All this nutritious food has made killdeer a common and conspicuous bird. In fact so widespread, there might be more killdeer today around New York Harbor than when Henry Hudson sailed into local waters in September 1609. Killdeer have become a real urban birdie.
With their return, it has been wonderful to hear their characteristic piping and piercing call. As the name suggests, it sounds like a shrill kill-deeee or fill-deeee. There is also a loud bubbling trill frequently made in response to even the smallest disruption or disturbance. A nervous dee-dee-dee-dee shriek that noisily sounds an alarm to other nearby birds to take flight. These unique birdcalls make up the collection of seasonal spring sounds around New York Harbor.
Of course the birds didn’t come here just to sing a song. Killdeer departed their winter home down south early to arrive around New York Harbor in February or March to begin raising a family. The need to breed can be so strong in killdeer that they often arrive even before their beach-nesting cousins, the piping plover. A small flock of killdeer was spotted at Sandy Hook around mid-February this winter.
They will get busy about nesting from April into May. Nests are not much to look at. They are often just a simple pebbly scrape in the ground, maybe with some grass on it. Usually four eggs are laid. Both parents share the task of incubating eggs. Killdeer will raise two broods in the spring and summer.
Good camouflage make’s their nests devilishly difficult to discover, but not impossible. Occasionally people and pets will crush eggs as they blend in very well with the ground. Predators including foxes, skunks, and gulls can also eat eggs.
Yet, killdeer haven’t gone this far by playing dead. Instead, they play sick. Adult killdeer are known to feign a wing injury to lure predators away from their eggs or young chicks. When predators are safely far enough away, an adult killdeer will then fly away. A perfect plan to fool dim-witted predators.
How can you not love killdeer? They are regularly the first shorebirds to return in the spring and the last to depart in the fall.
The problem is that killdeer have become so common we tend to overlook these unique metropolitan dwellers. These bold and beautiful birds with brash voices are arriving now to New York Harbor. Keep your eyes and ears open for this little urbanite.