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The Killdeer Broken Wing Act

Dear Bird Folks,

We’ve all heard the expression, “performing the broken wing act.” Do birds actually do that or is it basically an urban myth?

– Fred, New London, CT


Not a myth, Fred,

Birds really do perform the broken wing act. But don’t worry, there are still plenty of other myths out there and some are kind of scary, especially on social media. Don’t you miss the days when myths were fun and harmless? Toads used to give us warts, we couldn’t swim after eating and the more we shaved, the thicker our beards (or whatever) grew back. Toads, of course, can’t give us warts (although they will pee on us). Swimming right after eating is actually a good thing. It’s the best way to wash off all the crumbs. And I wish shaving made beards grow thicker. I shave everyday, but even if I didn’t, no one would ever know. My favorite myth is that people only use ten percent of their brains. This is not true either; it just seems like it is.

Nesting birds employ an assortment of methods to keep predators away. Chickadees will scold anyone or anything that get’s too close. Birds of prey, with their formidable talons, will physically attack trespassers. Even smaller birds, such as the Brown Thrasher, have been known to whack more than one confused landscaper. Other birds take a more thoughtful approach to predator defense. Predators aren’t evil; they’re just hungry. So, the adult bird offers them any easier meal…or so it seems.

Lots of bird species will an fake injury in order to distract a predator. This is especially true for ground nesters, where their eggs and young are highly vulnerable. The champ of these fakers is the Killdeer. Killdeer not only lay their eggs on the ground, but they make zero attempt to keep them hidden. They don’t conceal their eggs under a bush or in thick grass, but instead lay them right out in the open. I’ve found a Killdeer nest in the middle of a dirt road and one along the edge of a busy sidewalk, but most often these birds lay their eggs in old fields and pastures. If a non-predatory mammal like, say, a cow, approaches, the bird will fly at it while calling loudly, in an attempt to alter its course. This usually works. Cows don’t want any trouble. They just want to be left alone. A predator, such as a fox, however, is a different story. This is when the theatrics really begin.

When a more serious threat approaches, in addition to calling loudly, the bird will run a short distance away and immediately settle down, acting as if it was sitting on a nest. The purpose of this move is to fool the marauder into thinking this is the true location of the delicious eggs. Land predators rarely fall for this trick, but humans usually do. (Probably because we only use ten percent of our brains.) If the fake nest trick doesn’t work, the bird will launch into a full-fledged broken wing act. The Killdeer will spread its wing and tail, and open its beak as if it were tired, stressed and helpless. FYI: Instead of calling it the broken wing act, ornithologists prefer the term “distraction display.” Why? It’s because they doubt birds actually know what a broken wing looks like. Ornithologists are probably right, but come on. Can the bird nerds just stop fussing over semantics? We understand that birds didn’t study the broken wing routine in acting school. It’s just an expression, much like “running into a friend at the store.” Nobody envisions two people actually colliding in the toothpaste aisle…except for maybe ornithologists.

Does the broken wing trick really work? Yes, it truly does. To a hungry predator, a couple of eggs would make a good snack, but an adult Killdeer is a hearty meal. When it sees the “helpless” bird, it can’t resist going for the larger prize. The big bad predator changes course and heads for the injured bird, only to watch it fly away at the last second, while hearing it yell, “na-na na-na boo-boo” as it goes. In the meantime, while all the faking and taunting are going on, the other Killdeer parent will secretly slip back onto the nest and continue to keep the eggs warm, as if nothing unusual has happened. It has seen the act before, several times.

Like Bobwhites and Whip-Poor-Wills, Killdeer are so named because of their vocalizations. When upset, which they always seem to be, they will call, “kill-deer, kill-deer.” These chatty birds are frequently found around inland farms, yet Killdeer are, in fact< shorebirds, more specifically, plovers. But unlike their docile cousin, the Piping Plover, a bird with limited breeding range, Killdeer will breed just about anywhere in North America. They also aren’t fussy. While Piping Plovers battle sunbathers for the best sandy beaches, Killdeer are just as happy to hang out in a dirt parking lot or gravel pit. I like Killdeer, but even I have to admit Piping Plovers have better taste in real estate.

Many bird species perform the broken wing act, Fred, but the master is the Killdeer. Anytime you are near an open area and hear “kill-deer, kill-deer,” you’ll know a Killdeer is around. If the call becomes intense, you can also assume there’s a predator nearby. The bird will call and then deploy the broken wing act, and if the act is successful, the next sound you’ll hear will be the classic sound of victory, which, of course, is “na-na na-na boo-boo.” If you don’t believe me, ask any group of first graders. They’ll tell you.