NATURAL HISTORY

PIPING PLOVER } Charadrius melodus
FAMILY: Charadriidae

DESCRIPTION: The piping plover is a small shorebird about seven inches long with a wingspan of about 15 inches. Breeding birds have a sandy-colored back, white underparts and rump, a black upper tail, a black breastband, a black brow bar, orange legs, and an orange bill with a black tip. In the winter, birds lose their black bands, their legs fade to pale yellow, and their bills become mostly black.

HABITAT: Atlantic Coast plovers nest on coastal beaches, sandflats, gently sloped foredunes, sparsely vegetated dunes, and washover areas. Plovers in the Great Plains make their nests on open, sparsely vegetated sand or gravel beaches near wetlands, as well as on beaches, sand bars, and islands of major river systems. Great Lakes piping plovers breed on sparsely vegetated beaches, cobble pans, or sand spits of sand dune ecosystems along the Great Lakes shorelines. Wintering piping plovers occupy South Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and Caribbean beaches and barrier islands, primarily on intertidal beaches with no or very sparse vegetation.

RANGE: The piping plover has been divided into three breeding populations occupying three general areas: the Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes region, and the northern Great Plains region. The wintering ranges of the three breeding populations overlap and extend from North Carolina to Florida on the Atlantic Coast and from the Florida Gulf Coast to Texas and into Mexico, the West Indies, and the Bahamas.

MIGRATION: Northward migration to breeding grounds occurs during late February, March, and early April, and southward migration to wintering grounds begins in late July and extends through September.

BREEDING: Males begin to establish breeding territories by early April, and eggs may be present from mid-April to late July. Piping plovers are monogamous and generally fledge only one brood per season but may renest if nests are lost. Clutch size is usually about four eggs, which are laid throughout six or seven days and are incubated for about a month by both parents.

LIFE CYCLE: Piping plovers generally live less than five years.

FEEDING: Piping plovers probe for invertebrates such as insects, marine worms, and crustaceans at or just below the surface of the sand.

THREATS: Piping plovers are particularly vulnerable to off-road vehicles, which tear up plover habitat, directly kill birds, and crush nests and eggs. The species is also threatened by development, human disturbance, and predation by wild and domestic animals.

POPULATION TREND: The population of the piping plover first plummeted in the late 19th century due to hunting. With the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the decline caused by these threats was halted and the plover’s population increased until about 1950. It then began to decline again under pressure from development, beach stabilization programs, increased recreation, and human-caused ecosystem changes, which increased predation by native and introduced species. Conservation programs enacted after listing helped the plover, but recovery goals still have not been met. In 2006, the piping plover made the Audubon Society’s “top 10 most endangered species” list, and censuses estimated that all three plover populations contained a total of fewer than 8,500 breeding adults.

Photo © Sidney Maddock