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Piping Plover - Great Lakes Population


Two piping plovers standing on driftwood.



Great Lakes Population of

Piping Plovers


Critical Habitat


Life History


Spring and Fall Migration


Declines and Continuing Threats


Conservation and Recovery


The piping plover is a small shorebird and its Great Lakes Population is on the brink of extinction. When first listed as endangered in 1986, only 17 pairs nested in Michigan. Numbers have increased since then and piping plovers have expanded their range back into Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ontario, Canada; although in small numbers.


Piping Plovers Across the U.S.

The Great Lakes Population of piping plovers is part of a continental population that also includes a Northern Great Plains Population and an Atlantic Coast Population.


View a pdf map, taken from the Recovery Plan, that shows the ranges of each population.

The Past

In the late 1800s, there were probably 500 to 800 pairs of piping plovers nesting on Great Lakes beaches, with 100 of those pairs nesting on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines in Wisconsin.


Late 1800s to early 1900s

Piping plovers were shot for sport and for their feathers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was prevalent on the East coast, but we are not sure how much this caused their population decline in the Great Lakes. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to hunt piping plovers and removed hunting as a threat.



Piping Plover Historic Nest Sites in the Great Lakes

Map of Piping plover historical nesting sites in the Great Lakes.

View larger version of map - PDF

1948 to 1986

A greater threat to piping plovers during the first half of the 20th century was human use of beaches where plovers nested. Beaches were used and developed for recreation, homes and industry. By 1948, only a single pair of plovers nested in Wisconsin, in Door County. Piping plovers have rarely nested on the Lake Michigan shore in Wisconsin since then.


In 1977, the Great Lakes population was estimated at 31 nesting pairs but declined to 17 pairs by 1985 - all pairs that nested in Michigan.


Numbers of pairs nesting since 1986

piping plover feeding on shoreline

Photo by USFWS

When the piping plover was listed as endangered in 1986, the Great Lakes population nested exclusively at a few sites on the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan and southeastern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan, the state with the most habitat remaining.


Between 1986 and 2002, nests were recorded at 34 breeding sites in 12 counties in Michigan and 2 counties in Wisconsin.


In Wisconsin, since 1998, piping plovers have nested all but 3 years, with at least 3 pairs nesting every year since 2006 - - at least 43 plover chicks have fledged in the past 5 years.


Great Lakes Piping Plover Nesting Pairs - 1981 to 2011


Recovery Goal

A goal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Great Lakes Piping Plover Restoration Plan is to restore and maintain a viable population of plovers (150 pairs) so the species can be removed from the Threatened and Endangered Species List by 2020.



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Last updated: April 14, 2015