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Killdeer: With This Wing I Thee Led

Everything I learned about faking an illness, I owe to Ferris Bueller. “The key to faking out the parents is the clammy hands,” he tells his movie audience, on the morning of his ninth sick day of the semester. He also recommends faking a cramp, moaning and wailing, and licking your palms (“It’s a little childish and stupid, but then, so is high school.”).

The Killdeer is the Ferris Bueller of the bird world, but with far more noble intentions, which I’ll explain in a moment.

But first, let me describe this bird for you, especially if you’re not a North American resident. The Killdeer is in the plover family, but he’s that eccentric cousin in the family who’s not too keen on the beach. When the rest of the family is frolicking knee-deep in the tidal surf and gorging on seafood, the Killdeer is content with the most un-beachy of places. I’ve seen them on interstate exit ramps, around construction sites, on school playgrounds, along dirt roads, and randomly standing in Dollar Tree parking lots. Remember that C.S. Lewis quote about a child making mudpies in the slum because he has no idea what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea? Yup: Killdeer. “We are far too easily pleased.”


The Killdeer is named for the sound it makes (and not for any violent propensities toward actual deer); they incessantly chatter a two-syllable call as they soar over their ill-chosen habitats, and in 1758 Carl Linnaeus agreed that those syllables sounded like kill-deer kill-deer, though honestly it sounds just as easily like wait-here or big-ear or Shakespeare or a hundred other two-syllable phrases that don’t advocate for deer murder. Twenty years prior, the New-World naturalist Mark Catesby gave it the less savage title of Chattering Plover. But Linnaeus was the father of modern taxonomy, and that sort of gives you the trump card on naming things.

The Killdeer boasts a striking set of stripes. To look at one sitting on the ground, it looks as though someone has scored three points on a ring toss game, two around the middle and one that hasn’t quite dropped yet, hung up around the eyes. The young only sport a single stripe (plus the headband) but otherwise look like adorable little mini-me versions of their parents.



A Case of Pretend-onitis

But to return to the point, Killdeer are unbelievably Bueller-esque in their ability to fake an injury. If a predator, day hiker, or random trespasser gets too close to the “nest,” the Killdeer throws itself into a broken-wing performance with all the melodrama of a soap opera. It straightens and stiffens its wing at an awkward angle. It piteously scoots along, dragging its wing along the ground. If this fails to draw attention, it might see if it can garner more sympathy by switching to the other wing (Kids: don’t try this. Parents will notice). It chatters incessantly the entire time, as if screaming for a medic. If the ploy succeeds, it will draw the threat away from the “nest,” and when the intruder has moved to a sufficiently safe distance, the killdeer makes a miraculous (if somewhat suspicious) recovery, flying away while probably quoting Ferris: “They bought it. Incredible. One of the worst performances of my career, and they never doubted it for a second.”


I use quotation marks for the word nest, because if we’re honest, the killdeer doesn’t really make one. Rather, they lay eggs directly on the ground, possibly with a slight depression in the dirt, but otherwise nothing really indicating anything intentional. The advantage to this method is camouflage, and a lack of telltale nest materials. The disadvantages admittedly are far more obvious; laying eggs in the middle of a playground or a construction zone will create plenty of hazards that might require some dramatic flailing about. Consider: if you set up your child’s playpen in a field marked “Caution: Hard Hat Area,” you’re going to have your work cut out for you.


Not all of those threats will be predators. Some might simply be careless wanderers, like a cow wandering through the field. In those cases, a broken wing won’t be an effective deterrent for an animal that wasn’t planning on eating you in the first place, so the Killdeer opts for Plan B: a full-frontal charge, tail in the air, again with the telltale kill-deer chatter. This back-up distraction display is more aggressive, but to quote the Gambler, “You got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”


Thus, for Killdeer prospective parents, bringing life into the world involves a lot of running around, flailing, charging, and chattering. But the brave exploits of this little bird might inspire us in our parenting, in our leadership, and in our gospel-appreciation.


Killdeer Parenting


Let’s start with a “what not to do” lesson. For parents of the human variety, the Killdeer’s minimalist approach to nestmaking raises this reasonable question: Is it really wise to lay eggs in a minefield? Instead of knowingly placing our kids in harm’s way, we’re reminded that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For instance, good early discussions and healthy parameters on internet usage might provide some protection against its dangers (porn addiction, body image issues, cyber-bullying, hateful discourse, etc.) rather than leaving our kids “out in the open.”


But more nobly, the Killdeer inspires parents to charge the enemy when needed. If a child is getting bullied at school, or being treated unfairly by a teacher, they need a parent’s voice to be their advocate. More than that, there are times when, like the Killdeer, parents may be called to take the hit — to draw off the attacker and defend the nest. For example, my kids know that if they ever find themselves in an uncomfortable scenario, under pressure to do something they don’t want to do, they always have permission to blame Dad. “Sorry, my dad won’t let me go to that party” or “My dad needs to approve all purchases over $5” or “My dad knows the mileage on the car” (yes, another Bueller reference). Sure, it might not be true in the moment, but I can decree it retroactively at their request, and I’m fine being known as crazy-unreasonable as long as my kids are safe. Throw me under the bus, kids.

screenshot from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, faking out parents
Dubious advice from the Killdeer of 80's Movies


Killdeer Leadership


Dan Allender wrote a powerfully convicting book called Leading with a Limp about humility and transparency in church leadership. But maybe leading with a limp is more than just embracing your weaknesses, but actually suffering weaknesses and injury for the sake of the flock. In a recent podcast conversation with a pastor friend, we discussed how the Killdeer pictures a church leader. “We are called to have a target on our back for the sake of the flock,” he said. There are times when caring for the congregation means taking the hit, maybe even being seen as weak or wrong because we have the bigger picture, aware of the larger issues at stake. We draw the enemy’s gaze because we care for the nest. Think of what the Apostle Paul suffered for the advance of the gospel. His litany of weakness in 2 Corinthians 11 includes everything from stonings to shipwrecks to the slammer, a brutal biography which ends with “my concern for all the churches.” (11:28) He was regularly in the Enemy’s jaws, and yet willing to drag a wing so that others would thrive.



A Champion in the Arena


But ultimately, when I consider the Killdeer I’m reminded of the fierce love of a Savior who would turn the Enemy’s gaze. If you struggle to relate to all those help-against-the-enemy prayers in the Psalms, it’s crucial to remember that you do have an enemy. Several of them, actually. You can start with the big three: the world, the flesh, and the devil. They’re all on display as Paul describes our sinful state to the Ephesians, “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air… among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh.” (Ephesians 2:2-3) But a fourth enemy looms over them all: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” (2:1)


When I consider those enemies arrayed against me, I picture myself (thanks to a sermon I heard over 30 years ago) in the center of an ancient arena, sentenced to die in combat. Three gates open in front of me, and out crawl my foes: world, flesh, devil. In my imagination the first enemy — world — is a horrific gray screaming sludgy mass that oozes along like the Blob, absorbing and consuming everything it touches. The devil at the second gate, far more savage than red spandex and a pitchfork, bursts into the arena as a hideous dragon, a terrifying combination of Revelation imagery and Tolkein’s Smaug. But for me, the third enemy is the scariest, because the flesh looks like… me. A perfectly evil, unfiltered, mirror-image me, who knows me to my core, and laughs at any of my pretenses of courage.


This is my fate, to die in this arena at the hands of these three unbeatable adversaries. The world has misled me, the devil has tricked me, the flesh has lured me, and I deserve this sentence.


But I’m not alone in this arena; in all the commotion someone else has entered. He runs to my side, pulls me to the ground, and faces down the advancing foes. They turn from me, drawn off to face him. And as he turns to meet them, he says quietly, so only I can hear,


Take heart, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

I have broken the power of the Devil. (Hebrews 2:14)

I have condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:3)


Yes, this champion will beat back the world, cast down the devil, and transform the flesh. But to do so he will draw the fire of the last enemy. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26) He will win, but first he will lose. He will lie dead in the arena and his enemies will gloat, and all hope will seem lost as this unholy Trinity refixes their sights on me. And then, in a moment — imagine it! — glorious light dissolves every last trace of them, and death itself works backward.


“Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”


 “No one, sir,”


“Then neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:10-11)


End scene. I know this imagery might be a little overboard on the CGI effects, although we are talking about the death of death, which is a pretty big deal. But now bring it back to an entreating plover limping through a field with a seemingly broken wing. You’re not the Killdeer; you’re the egg. You’re helpless on the ground, destined for an unfortunate encounter with a coyote stomach or the bottom of a work boot. But someone fights for you to draw off the enemy, at great personal cost to self. He doesn’t fake the injury; he fully embraces the blade.

Killdeer and two chicks
Killdeer and chicks via Shutterstock


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