status: Vulnerable, IUCN Threatened, ESA Endangered, ESA (Great Lakes)
Description and biology
The piping plover is so-named because of its distinctive call, a two-note piping or peeping sound. The color of this shore bird's plumage (covering of feathers) is sandy-beige above and white below. It has a short black bill and yellow legs. During breeding season, the piping plover develops black markings on its forehead and throat. Its bill turns orange, except at the tip, which remains black. Its legs also turn bright orange.
This bird's diet includes insects and small marine animals such as crawfish, snails, and clams. It locates its food by following the backwash of waves, which deposit or uncover these animals on beaches. The bird's predators include racoons, foxes, opossums, gulls, skunks, rats, and feral (once domesticated, now wild) cats and dogs.
Breeding season takes place between March and August. The male piping plover courts the female with both aerial
(flying) and ground displays or movements. After having mated, the female lays a clutch (eggs produced at one time) of 4 eggs in a shallow hollow in the ground lined with pebbles or plant debris. Both the male and female incubate (sit on or brood) the eggs for about 30 days. The chicks fledge (develop flying feathers) approximately 30 days after they hatch.
Habitat and current distribution
The piping plover is found on open beaches and sand and mud flats in North America. It breeds primarily in three regions: the Atlantic coast from southern Canada to North Carolina, along rivers and wetlands in the Great Plains from southern Canada to Nebraska, and the western Great Lakes. In winter, the bird migrates to coastal areas and sand flats from the Carolinas south to Yucatán, Mexico. It also migrates to the Bahamas and other islands of the West Indies.
In the early 1990s, biologists (people who study living organisms) estimated that only 2,500 piping plover pairs existed. The majority, over 1,350, were found on the Great Plains. Only about 16 pairs inhabited the Great Lakes, a region where the piping plover is labeled endangered.
History and conservation measures
The piping plover was almost certainly more plentiful at the beginning of the twentieth century than it is today. The earliest cause of the bird's decline was excessive hunting. Now that hunting of the plover is outlawed, habitat disturbance and destruction are its main threats.
Because the piping plover nests on open coastal beaches, it is easily disturbed by humans and their pets. In addition, the bird has lost much of its nesting area as beaches and other waterfronts have been converted into recreational and living areas for humans. This has been especially true in the Great Lakes region.
Many conservation efforts to protect the piping plover's nesting areas are currently being undertaken. These include restricting the use of off-road vehicles on beaches and building barriers around nests to prevent contact by humans and predators.