The Case of the Curious Killdeer

A delightful shorebird, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) ranges far beyond the shore. Common enough in open grasslands or on sandbars and mudflats, it’s as likely to show up on lawns, golf courses, or parking lots. Usually solitary or part of a mated pair, its call is clear and unmistakable: one of spring and summer’s beloved sounds.

I’d never seen a Killdeer stirring the water with its foot to bring up bits of food until I noticed one doing just that at the edge of the Brazoria Refuge’s Big Slough. Unperturbed by my presence, it stirred its way down the shoreline, occasionally casting a glance toward the sky at the sound of a passing bird.

Once reassured, it continued to stir the water, bobbing its head down from time to time to snatch a treat.

Suddenly it stopped, and turned away from the water. Climbing onto piles of dead reeds lining the shore, it began a purposeful walk toward a different section of water.

As I watched, it crept closer to the object of its curiosity: a Wilson’s Snipe perched at the edge of the reeds.

For a few minutes, nothing much happened. The Snipe sat; the Killdeer watched.

Eventually, I crept closer and the Snipe turned toward me, showing the neatly patterned feathers at the top of its head.

Then, it settled down again on its reeds, while the Killdeer, its curiosity apparently satisfied, continued its journey down the shoreline, stirring and bobbing as it went.


Comments always are welcome.

52 thoughts on “The Case of the Curious Killdeer

  1. A wonderful photo story featuring a word I only ever knew from my crossword days. Now I know what it looks like.

    1. I think it must have been the Killdeer you weren’t familiar with, since I’m sure there are Snipes in England. There’s very little more fun than being able to fill a word with an image, or an experience.

  2. I enjoyed this story and great shots, it’s nice to have someone so observant on the scene. I’ve seen killdeer and they always seem to be in motion, skittering around, so it’s interesting to read about this curious guy just holding still to study another bird. I’ve never seen a snipe, it looks a lot like a woodcock, which always seem to be amazingly hard to spot in the woods, I’ve only ever gotten a good look twice, and never photographed one.

    1. You’re right about the killdeer’s propensity to stay on the move. My favorite killdeer experience involved a parent and some brand new babies, who even at that early age seemed capable of outrunning their elders. The young ones are running only hours after they hatch; to me, they look rather like golf balls with legs.

      I laughed when I read some of the common names for your woodcock: timberdoodle, bogsucker, hokumpoke, and Labrador twister. This short comparison of the woodcock and snipe mentions that the snipe tends to stay hidden, and usually isn’t seen until flushed. I’ve only seen a snipe three times, so finding this one in the open was special.

  3. A great shorebird encounter. Killdeer arrive here quite early in the flush of spring migration and now it is March every birder will be keeping eyes and ears open for the first arrival. Now, we need to rid ourselves of some of this snow.

    1. Is the Killdeer’s call usually the first announcement of its arrival there? When our ospreys arrive in the fall, I almost always hear one before actually sighting it. I suppose it’s because the call is the invitation to begin looking around. We don’t have many birds calling or singing yet, but the doves have begun some intermittent cooing, so it won’t be long.

    1. I’ve never seen such an obviously curious bird in the wild, except for the occasional bluejay or crow. Since these two are in the same family, and resemble one another in size, perhaps it was a case of a near-sighted killdeer trying to figure out whether he’d found another of his kind.

    1. Not only is the snipe’s beak several times the length of its head, it can consume the ‘whatevers’ it finds to eat while that beak still is in the mud, and it can manipulate the tip of its beak without moving it at the base. That’s adaptation writ large! As for those killdeer eyes, I think they’re one of its most attractive features. The certainly are noticeable.

  4. You have captured some more perfect bird photos. I finally saw a pair of Killdeer up here after not seeing them for quite a while. We used to have lots of Killdeer that would hang out in the grass next to streets, but the human population has grown and most of the birds moved on. I heard a funny story about Killdeer. A grandmother told her grandson there were Killdeer in the yard and he should go see them. The little boy wondered if they kill deer what will they do to me?

    1. Your mention of seeing killdeers in the grass next to the street reminds me that one of the most dependable places to see them in the refuges is around the parking lots. I have photos of them from both San Bernard and Brazoria where they’re either in the middle of the road or running through the mowed grass next to them.

      That’s a good joke. You may not yet have arrived in Texas when George W. Bush became a bit of a joke himself by shooting a killdeer. In 1994, he and Ann Richards were running against one another for governor, and Bush confused a killdeer with a dove while hunting. It became quite a campaign issue, since killdeer aren’t game birds.

    1. As if Fat Tuesday, election day, and the State of the Union address weren’t enough, we get sunshine, too. I guess we could call it a Quad-fecta — get out and enjoy it!

    1. I hated to lose robin song when I moved to Texas, but the Killdeer and Nighthawk sounds help to make up for it. I certainly was surprised to see that Snipe in the open, and was grateful to the Killdeer for pointing me toward it.

  5. Excellent photos! Whenever I see a Killdeer it’s usually running too fast for me to get a good photo. We ran across a pair in a cemetery in the mountains of NC of all places. They’re so much fun to watch!

    1. Thanks, Dana! Have you ever seen the babies? They’re as fast as their parents, and cute as can be. You saw some in a cemetery; I found a pair in one of my marinas. It amazes me that they’re so successful in raising their families, given that they nest on the ground, and often in more or less plain sight. They are fun to watch, and they seem to be fairly tolerant of us humans!

  6. I haven’t seen a kildeer in quite a while. They’re lovely little birds.

    The fact that it was deliberately ‘stirring the pot’ was interesting. It was using it’s foot as a tool!

    1. It sure was. I’ve seen Snowy Egrets do the same thing with a foot, but I didn’t realize that the practice was wider-spread. Do you have the little Green Herons? They’ll actually fish with ‘bait.’ Here’s a video of one using bread to catch a fish — and he does it! Tool use among the critters is so interesting.

  7. Great little vignette and wonderful photos of the actors! I’ve never seen either of those birds, at least as far as I’m aware. I imagine that at some point in my growing up or visiting Corpus, I saw a snipe, but wouldn’t have known a snipe from a wood duck.

    1. When I looked at the iNaturalist map, there were very few Snipe sightings in Corpus proper, but quite a few — even a lot — in Rockport, Port Aransas, Aransas Pass, and so on. Since they prefer shallow water and marshier land, that makes sense. I’m surprised you haven’t seen Killdeer. I’d be willing to bet a cup of birdseed you’ve heard them!

      I recently learned there’s a pair of wood ducks in a pond in a park about thirty miles away. I’m thinking it might be worth a trip, since I’ve never seen a wood duck myself. There’s a rookery there filled with egrets and herons. I don’t have the lenses to get the fabulous photos some have managed, but it still would be fun to see those wood ducks.

  8. Are these two friendly? To each other, I mean? I find it curious how the killdeer just sat there watching the snipe. Aw, shoot, I probably ought to Google them, rather than sending you off on an exploratory mission! Great photo story, Linda.

    1. They are in the same family, but as far as I know these two species don’t hang out together on a regular basis, like some birds do. Snowy Egrets and Ibis will feed together, for example, but I think these both are more solitary birds. It truly seemed as though the Killdeer was just curious, and it was clear the Snipe didn’t think he was a threat. Seeing them certainly was a treat for me!

  9. I first noticed that water/sand ‘stirring to find food’ action by the Silver Gulls down the beach. It fascinated me at the time. No doubt, there are many other food-finding techniques that birds have that we humans are never privileged to see. It seemed to occur only at low tide.

    1. I’m glad you’ve seen that stirring, Vicki. I’d seen it with Snowy Egrets and Black-necked Stilts in the past, but I had no idea that Killdeer would do it. I wasn’t sure what your Silver Gull looked like; it’s quite a handsome bird. I love the red legs and bill, and that red eye ring is just as prominent as the eye ring on the Killdeer.

    1. The Snipe may be the most intricately patterned bird I’ve seen. I’m sure there are others, but I could sit and look at its feathers for hours. I was pleased it gave me a chance to seem them up close; it didn’t seem any more disturbed by my presence than by that of the Killdeer.

    1. I’m so accustomed to birds taking flight when I come upon them it was quite an unusual experience, and great fun. They’re both beautiful birds; maybe they were admiring one another. The Snipe clearly wasn’t threatened, and the Killdeer wasn’t aggressive — maybe the Killdeer was a different sort of ‘bird watcher’!

    1. Are the snipe fairly common in your area? This is only the third I’ve seen in about five years. Of course, there could be many more that I just don’t see. Like the bitterns, they can be hard to sort out from the reeds and other marsh plants they use as cover. I was surprised to find this one in the open, but on the other hand, it was in the same general area as the other two I’ve found: an area with plenty of cattails, tall grasses, and such.

      1. I think snipe are fairly common. I mainly see them during the winter and suspect that’s because of a lack of vegetation. In summer they have a lot more hiding places. I find them extremely attractive with their striped plumage and long beaks.

  10. Lovely killdeer. Their nesting success is so low, because they nest on the ground. I often see them nearby in the park trying to nest but something always seems to destroy their nests.

    1. I read that they’ll often attempt several broods each year, just because of that low success rate. On the other hand, they’re increasing in number, at least here, and aren’t considered at risk. One of the articles I read included ‘curious children’ in the list of threats to their nests; that made me laugh. It makes perfect sense.

  11. I love the behaviors and interactions you captured, and getting both birds in a single shot is great. I just love killdeer. I’ve photographed very few but have had a couple fun interactions. In one case it was at the shore of a lake and the killdeer began acting as if it had a broken wing, which told me it had a nest or young nearby, something I’d not been at all aware of before it began that behavior. Another was at work where a killdeer pair nested down in some gravel of a new parking lot that was being put in. Construction on that area stopped and cones were put up around the nest to prevent anyone from accidentally parking or mowing too near the pair until they left the nest. I was very happy that’s how the construction folks handled the situation.

    1. I certainly was bemused by the birds’ apparent indifference to me, and I was so pleased that I could capture both of them in the same frame. Like you, I enjoy the birds, and especially get a kick out of their babies. I’ve never seen that ‘broken wing’ maneuver in person, but the videos I’ve seen are amazing. And kudos to that construction crew for cordoning off the nest site! I once knew a boater who kept his sailboat at the dock for weeks after he discovered a pair of mallards had set up housekeeping in his cockpit. It wasn’t entirely smart on the part of the mother, as she had to have a little help getting her babies to the water, but it all worked out in the end.

  12. Killdeer come to us in flocks together with blackbirds, grackles, and cowbirds. It’s entertaining to watch their injured act as they try to distract people or other critters away from their nests.
    It’s funny that some people don’t think snipes exist and have snipe hunts as a ruse to make fun of someone. You got some nice shots of the Wilson’s.

    1. Ah, yes. The venerable snipe hunt. It was years — decades — before I knew that snipes were real birds. Then, it took a few more years before I came across my first one. The count is up to three, now: one each in three years, and all along the same stretch of road at Brazoria.

      I’ve never seen them in flocks here. I suppose that’s because they’re year-round residents, and we never see them in migration. They breed almost throughout the state, too. I’m hoping to see some of their babies this year. Since they can run almost as soon as they leave the egg, they’re tiny, and funny as can be. I like to describe them as ‘golf balls with legs.’

  13. That long bill on the snipe reminds us of the origin of the word “sniper.” It’s a very lovely bird to have such a limited color palette. Kildeer was one of the first birds I learned to recognize at Girl Scout camp. I must have been about 9 or 10.

    1. I couldn’t stop looking at those patterns on the snipe. Another characteristic that one of the birding sites pointed out is their lack of a neck; their head pretty much sits right on top of their body.

      You’ve been around Texas long enough that you might remember the story about George W. Bush’s famous dove hunt. In 1994, he was running against Ann Richards, and both of them were determined to burnish their Texas creds. Mr. Bush went on a dove hunt and felled a Killdeer: totally illegal since the Killdeer isn’t considered a game bird. He wrote a check to the game warden, and Richards had a great deal of fun with his mistake.

    1. Ann, I hardly could believe what I was seeing. It’s common enough to see a Killdeer, and I’d seen Snipe before, but watching those birds watch one another was amusing as could be. I swear that Killdeer was experiencing curiosity, and why not? We see it in our pets, or other wild animals. Why not a bird?

  14. Terrific encounter and superb photographs!

    There once was a Snipe who was dozing,
    Which was disturbed by a Kildeer’s nosing;
    Two strangers in the wild,
    Whose reactions were mild;
    They had no idea it was for Linda they were posing.

    (Sorry, Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)

    1. That’s just great, Wally! Your poem certainly captures the moment(s) the three of us shared. If nothing else, the experience was a good reminder to pay attention when a bird’s behavior seems somehow ‘odd.’ I loved seeing the Killdeer’s curiosity, and it was a real plus that those two birds were more interested in each other than in me!

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