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Piping Plover
Charadrius melodus
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Charadriidae
Genus: Charadrius
Species: C. melodus
Binomial name
Charadrius melodus
(Ord, 1824)
  • C. m. circumcinctus
  • C. m. melodus

The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small sand-colored, sparrow-sized shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and gravel beaches in North America. The adult has yellow-orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and a black ring around the neck. This chest band is usually thicker in males during the breeding season, and it's the only reliable way to tell the sexes apart. It is difficult to see when standing still as it blends well with open, sandy beach habitats. It typically runs in short starts and stops.

There are 2 subspecies of Piping Plovers: the eastern population is known as Charadrius melodus melodus and the mid-west population is known as Charadrius melodus circumcinctus. The bird's name is derived from its plaintive bell-like whistles which are often heard before the bird is visible.

Total population is currently estimated at about 6,410 individuals. A preliminary estimate showed 3,350 birds in 2003 on the Atlantic Coast alone, 52% of the total.[2] The population has been increasing since 1991.

Their breeding habitat includes beaches or sand flats on the Atlantic coast, the shores of the Great Lakes, and in the mid-west of Canada and the United States. They nest on sandy or gravel beaches or shoals. These shorebirds forage for food on beaches, usually by sight, moving across the beaches in short bursts. Generally, Piping Plovers will forage for food around the high tide wrack zone and along the waters edge. They mainly eat insects, marine worms, and crustaceans.



The Piping Plover is a stout bird with a large rounded head, a short thick neck, and a stubby bill. It is a sand-colored, dull gray/khaki, sparrow-sized shorebird. The adult has yellow-orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and a black ring around the neck during the breeding season. Its bill is orange with a black tip. It ranges from 6.75–7 in (17.1–17.8 cm) in length, with a wingspan of 18–18.75 in (46–48 cm) and a mass of 1.5–1.7 oz (43–48 g).


Two subspecies are recognized, including nominate C. m. melodus of the Atlantic Coast and C. m. circumcinctus of the Great Plains. On average, circumcinctus is darker overall with more contrastingly dark cheeks and lores. Breeding male circumcinctus shows more extensive black on forehead and bill-base and more often shows complete breast-bands. Some overlap exists.


Flight call is a soft, whistled peep given by standing and flying birds. Frequently heard alarm call is a soft pee-werp, which the second syllable lower pitched. Male's display song is a repeated, high-pitched pirp, pirp, pirp, pirp, pirp... or more drawn-out pooeep, pooeep, pooeep...,and once in a while ka-weep, ka-weep often repeated 40 or more times per flight. Display flight is often in the shape of a figure eight[4]


The Piping Plover lives the majority of its life on open sandy beaches or rocky shores, often in high, dry sections away from water. They can be found on the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. and Canada on ocean or bay beaches and on the Great Lakes shores. It builds its nests higher on the shore near beach grass and other objects. It is very rare to see a Piping Plover anywhere outside of sand or rocky beaches/shores while not migrating.

Migration and breeding

Piping Plover chick at 2 days.

Piping Plovers migrate north in the summer and winters to the south on the Gulf of Mexico, the southern Atlantic coast of the United States and the Caribbean. They begin migrating north beginning in mid-March. Their breeding grounds extend from southern Newfoundland south to the northern parts of South Carolina.[3] They begin mating and nesting on the beach in mid-April.

Males will begin claiming territories and pairing up in late March. When pairs are formed the male begins digging out several scrapes (nests) along the high shore near the beach grass line. Scrapes, small depressions in the sand dug by kicking the sand, are often in the same area that Least Terns choose to colonize. Females will sit and evaluate the scrapes. The female will choose a good scrape and will decorate the nest with shells and debris to camouflage it. Once a scrape is seen as sufficient, the female will allow the male to copulate with her. The male begins a mating ritual of standing upright and "marching" towards the female, puffing himself up and quickly stomping his legs. If the female had seen the scrape as adequate she will allow the male to stand on her back and copulation occurs within a few minutes.

Most first time nest attempts in each breeding season are 4 egg nests. Nests appear as early as mid to late April. Females lay one egg every other day. Second, third and sometimes fourth nesting attempts may only have three or two eggs. Incubation of the nest is shared by both the male and the female. Incubation is generally 27 days and eggs usually all hatch on the same day.

Many conservationists use exclosures, such as round turkey wire cages with screened top, to protect the nests from predators during incubation. These allow the adults to move in and out but stop predators from getting to the eggs. When the chicks hatch many areas will put up snow fencing to restrict driving and pets for the safety of the chicks. The threats to nests include predators such as crows, cats, racoons, fox and various other animals to less extents. Ghost Crabs have been noted as being a possible predator of young chicks. These "exclosures" are what protect the nest from predators. Exclosures are not always used; sometimes they will draw more attention to the nest than they would without the exclosure. Other natural hazards to the eggs and chicks include storms, high winds, and abnormal high tides. Various human disturbances have caused the abandonment of nests and chicks as well. As a precaution it is best to stay away from any bird that appears distressed to prevent any unintended consequences.

Piping Plover chick at two weeks.

After a chick hatches it is able to feed within hours. The adults role is then to protect them from the elements by brooding them. They also alert them to any danger. Like many other species of plovers, adult Piping Plovers will often feign a broken wing, "broken wing display", drawing attention to itself and away from the chicks when a predator may be threatening the chicks safety. The "broken wing display" is also used during the nesting period to distract predators from the nest. A major defense mechanism in the chicks is their ability to blend in with the sand. It takes about 30 days before a chick achieves flight capability. They must be able to fly at least 50 yards before they can be considered as fledglings.

Migration south begins in August for some adults and fledglings, and by mid-September most Piping Plovers have headed south for winter.


An inconspicuous bird of dry sandy beaches. Breeds in open sand, gravel, or shell-strewn beaches and alkali flats. Nest site is typically near small clumps of grass, drift, or other windbreak. In winter prefers sand beaches and mudflats. Migrants seldom seen inland but occasionally show up at lake shores, river bars, or alkali flats. Forages visually in typical plover fashion, employing and run-stop-scan technique. Captures prey by leaning forward and picking at surface. Also employs a "foot-tremble" feeding method, causing prey to move and become more conspicuous. Feeds by day and night. Eats a wide variety of aquatic marine worms, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. Seldom found in large numbers except at a few favored wintering or staging sites, where numbers sometimes reach 100 or more. More typically seen in pairs or in groups of 3 or 4. When approached, more often runs than flies.[4]


The Piping Plover is globally threatened and endangered; it is uncommon and local within its range. The piping plover has been listed by the United States as "endangered" in the Great Lakes region and "threatened" in the remainder of its breeding range.[5] While it is federally threatened, the Piping Plover has been listed as state endangered in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In Eastern Canada, the Piping Plover is only found on coastal beaches. In 1985 it was declared an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.[6] A large population in Ontario has disappeared entirely.[7]

Historical and current conservation

Piping Plover protected nesting area on Cavendish Beach, P.E.I.

In the 1800s and early 1900s the Piping Plover was utilized for its feathers, as were many other birds at the time, as decoration in women's hats. These decorations, called plumes, became a symbol of high society, especially those from larger rare birds. This led to its initial population decline. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 helped the population recover through the 1930s.[8] The second decline in the Piping Plover's population and range has been attributed to increased development, shoreline stabilization efforts,[9] habitat loss and human activity near nesting sites in the decades following World War II.[8] The Great Lakes populations eventually shrank to only a couple dozen.[7]

Critical nesting habitats are now being protected to help the population during its breeding season. Populations have significantly increased since the protection programs began, but the species remains in serious danger. Current conservation strategies include identification and preservation of known nesting sites, public education, limiting or preventing pedestrian and/or off-road vehicle traffic near nests and hatched chicks, limiting predation of free-ranging cats, dogs and other pets on breeding pairs, eggs and chicks,[10] and removal of foxes, raccoons, skunks, and other predators.[11] Roughly $3 million a year is being spent for the U.S. Atlantic Coast population alone.[12]

In coastal areas such as Plymouth,[13] Cape Cod, Long Island, and most recently, Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, beach access to pedestrians and Off Road Vehicles (ORVs) has been limited or even sometimes prohibited near nesting Piping Plovers as a result of management plans and lawsuits filed by environmental organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).[14][15] As with any other threatened species, conflicts arise and compromises have to be made between those protecting the species and those who use the habitat.

Increased restrictions to areas near Hatteras Village,[16] Ocracoke Island,[17] and other areas within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore have been viewed as excessive by some residents, visitors, businesses, and activist groups such as Outer Banks Preservation Association,[15][18] and the Hatteras Island Fishing Militia.[19][20] The Plovers, however, have seen their highest nesting success since 1988 in the years since the temporary beach closures were put into effect.[21]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2008). Charadrius melodus. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 1 September 2009. Database entry includes justification for why this species is near threatened.
  2. ^ BirdLife International (2008) Species factsheet: Charadrius melodus. Downloaded from on 24/12/2008[1]
  3. ^ Fish and Wildlife Service Piping Plover
  4. ^ The Shorebird Guide, 2006, O'Brien, Michael, Richard Crossley, and Kenvin Karlson. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York
  5. ^ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  6. ^ "Species at Risk - Piping Plover melodus subspecies". Environment Canada. 2006-05-08. 
  7. ^ a b Ehrlich, Paul R.; Dobkin, David S.; Wheye, Darryl (1992). Birds in Jeopardy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. pp. 21. ISBN 0-8047-1967-5. 
  8. ^ a b New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife
  9. ^ U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Atlantic Coast Population Piping Plover Recovery Plan [2]
  10. ^ The Nature Conservancy's Species Profile: Piping Plover
  11. ^ U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Atlantic Coast Population Piping Plover Recovery Plan [3]
  12. ^ IUNC Red List
  13. ^ Plymouth Beach Town Beach By-laws
  14. ^ Southern Environmental Law Center(SELC)
  15. ^ a b Fish and Wildlife Analysis
  16. ^ Hatteras Village
  17. ^ Ocracoke Island
  18. ^ The Outer Banks Preservation Association
  19. ^ Shooting The Breeze by Irene Nolan
  20. ^ Hatteras Island Fishing Militia website
  21. ^ [4]

External links

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