The piping plover (charadrius melodus) is a small, migratory shorebird named for its melodic mating call. Adult birds are normally 6-1/2 to 7 inches in length with a whitish underside, and pale brown upperparts. They have a distinctive black band across the forehead, and around the base of the neck. However, these bands are obscure on young chicks, and on the winter plumage of adults.
Piping plovers can live to be five years or older, and are reproductively active as early as one year after hatching, continuing to an advanced age.
Exact migration paths and wintering sites for piping plovers are not fully understood, however, known wintering sites include the coastal regions of the Gulf Of Mexico, scattered Caribbean Islands, and the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Mexico.
Piping plovers migrate north in the spring to breed and nest, seeking habitat in open, sparsely vegetated areas near the water, such as river sandbars, prairie sloughs and alkali wetlands, sand and gravel shorelines, and sandy beaches.
The nesting season for piping plovers usually begins in late April or early May, and can last into September. The male performs an elaborate aerial flight over his territory to attract females, and to warn potential rivals of his territorial boundaries.
Nest scraping and stone tossing are also part of the nesting ritual. The male selects an elevated area, and scrapes shallow, bowl-shaped depressions in the sand while calling to the female. The female inspects each bowl, and selects one in which to lay her eggs. The pair will often line their nest bowl with small pebbles or shell fragments, insuring a perfect blend with the surroundings.
The clutch typically consists of 4 eggs, and is incubated by both parents. Plovers are predominately monogamous, although mate switching and changes in territory have been known to occur after nest failure, and between years. Some females will lay eggs up to 4 or 5 times if previous nesting attempts have failed, although the success rate for chicks decreases as the season progresses.
Chicks begin foraging for small invertebrates soon after hatching. The parents do not feed their brood, rather they act as sentries, and provide a soft, feathery refuge for the chicks to snuggle under.
Piping plovers are very territorial, and will aggressively defend their nesting sites. They communicate a distinctive distress call when threatened, and will attempt to lure intruders away from their nests or chicks with disruptive behavior, such as feigning a broken wing.
In regions where summer temperatures can soar into the 90s and 100s, piping plovers will spend as much time insulating their eggs as they do incubating. Unhatched chicks and developing embryos have a low heat tolerance, and will die within minutes if left exposed to the burning summer sun.
A web version of our documentary, A Vanishing Melody: The Call of the Piping Plover, is available for viewing at the EarthwaveSociety Channel on YouTube.
In 1996, the most extensive endangered species census ever conducted in North America focused on piping plovers. The census accounted for 5,837 breeding plovers scattered primarily across beaches in 20 states in the Great Plains, around the Great Lakes, and along the Atlantic Coast, as well as in 9 Canadian provinces.
Three populations of piping plovers exist in the United States. The most critical is the Great Lakes population which was classified as endangered in 1986 (ESA). At the time of listing, there were only 16 breeding pairs. A 2007 census report shows a 200% increase with 63 breeding pairs.
The loss of habitat, and changing land and river use forces a higher concentration of birds to utilize a smaller percentage of habitat. As a result, predators have become an increasing problem.
Beginning in 1987, recovery efforts included the use of wire mesh enclosures at nesting sites to protect the eggs from predation. In 1998 orphaned chicks and abandoned eggs were reared in captivity, and fledglings then released.
The Northern Great Plains and Atlantic Coast populations are classified as threatened. According to the most recent Abundance and Productivity Estimates from the FWS, the Atlantic Coast piping plover population has increased approximately 234%. There were 790 pairs in 1986 when piping plovers were first listed (ESA). In 2009, there were an estimated 1,849 pairs. Overall, the U.S. portion of the population has almost tripled, from approximately 550 pairs to an estimated 1,597 pairs.
Piping plovers are listed as a federally threatened species (ESA), and are also protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994. The Great Lakes population is designated as Endangered. On July 10, 2001, the final rule designating critical habitat for the wintering population of the piping plover was published in the Federal Register. The designation includes shoreline habitat in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Signs have been posted by state and federal agencies in an effort to alert the public to areas where piping plovers and least terns are nesting.
Disturbance by humans and pets is another major contributor to egg and chick mortality, particularly on beaches along the Atlantic Coast, and on Missouri River sandbars where, all too often, warning signs are ignored, and recreation takes precedence over the birds’ need for survival. It is important for the public to understand that their cooperation is necessary - collectively and individually - before full recovery of the species can be achieved.
A DVD of this one-hour documentary is available at our DVD Gallery.