The killdeer is a shorebird.
It’s one of the variety of shorebirds called plovers. It’s perhaps the most common, the most well known of shorebirds. There are other plovers: golden, Wilson’s, snowy, semipalmated and black-bellied.
The snipe is a shorebird, a real bird, not the imaginary bird of a snipe hunt. That snipe is a prank in which pranksters station a victim with a gunny sack in a woods and tell him to wait while they circle around and drive a snipe to him.
Godwits and curlews and yellowlegs are shorebirds. Woodcock and ruddy turnstone, long-billed and short-billed dowitchers and dunlin are shorebirds. Sandpipers and sanderlings, little birds often called peeps, are shorebirds. There is no group of birds with more variety.
Shorebirds, in spite of the name, aren’t all found along shores or wading in water. Killdeer nest on the ground in grassland with sparse vegetation. A pair of killdeer has nested in our pasture nearly every year, perhaps every year, since we moved to our home in the country.
One year, a pair of killdeer nested on small stones around the base of the post for the mailbox of a state park where I lived and worked.
Woodcock are birds of open woods or woodland edges, not shores. They feed and nest on the ground among trees and fly between the trees when disturbed. Darting about among trees when flushed has given them the common name of timber-doodle.
Despite the number and variety of shorebirds, many people believe they all have long legs. That’s no more true than that they all live near water. Woodcock have very short legs. Little sandpipers and sanderlings have short legs, no longer than the legs of a robin. Little shorebirds are difficult to distinguish from each other and a flock of little shorebirds is often just called a flock of peeps.
Another common misconception is that shorebirds have long bills. Many do, but a killdeer doesn’t, nor do many other plovers and sandpipers.
Shorebirds do have some traits in common of course. They all feed on the ground or in shallow water. They all nest on the ground. They nest early, not in late winter but early spring, April or May, and they have one nest, raise just one brood per year. The nesting range of many species extends far north, into northern Canada and Alaska, and they have raised their broods for this year and are already traveling south. They migrate south in July or August. They’re winging their way past us now, adding variety to summer birding.
To make it easier to identify species, shorebirds may be divided into several groups. Plovers are an obvious group. They have short stout bills. Think of killdeer. They are birds of uplands, almost never wading in water, think again of killdeer.
Yellowlegs are named and identified by the color of their legs. No other shorebirds, no other long legged birds, have bright yellow legs.
The dowitchers are stocky birds, their bodies resembling the body of a bobwhite. They have long bills and feed by probing in mud or shallow water. It is reported that they find their food by feel which is logical since they get most of their food out of mud or from beneath shallow water where they couldn’t see it.
Little shorebirds, peeps, are the most numerous shorebirds. They’re described as small to medium sized but medium seems a stretch to me. They have fairly short bills and legs. They’re highly active when feeding, darting about on a mud flat or in very shallow water. They gather in flocks, sometimes hundreds, covering a mud flat, when not nesting.
Killdeer, snipe, godwit, curlew, yellowlegs, sandpiper, sanderling, woodcock, turnstone, dowitcher, dunlin, they’re all shorebirds. They’re as numerous and much more varied than sparrows or warblers and as challenging to a birder as a flock of warblers in spring.