Cape May National Wildlife Refuge
Northeast Region
 
24 Kimbles Beach Road
Cape May Court House, NJ
08210
(609) 463-0994

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

The Northern Great Plains and Atlantic coast piping plovers are threatened species. Threatened species are animals and plants that are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The piping plover in the Great Lakes area is an endangered species. Endangered species are animals and plants that are in danger of becoming extinct. Piping Plovers were common along the Atlantic Coast during much of the 19th century, but nearly disappeared due to excessive hunting for the millinery trade. People used the birds and feathers on hats.  Following passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, numbers recovered to a 20th century peak which occurred during the 1940's. The current population decline is attributed to increased development and recreational use of beaches since the end of World War II.

Piping plover. Credit: C. Perez/USFWS
Piping plover. Credit: C. Perez/USFWS  

What does the piping plover look like?
What does the piping plover eat?
Were doe they live and have their young?
What are their nesting rituals?
Why is the piping plover threatened/endangered?
What is being done to prevent extinction of the piping plover?
What can I do to help protect the piping plover?
Northeast region piping plover page


What does the piping plover look like?

The piping plover is a small, stocky shorebird resembling a sandpiper. The adults weigh 1.5 to 2 ounces, have a length of 7 inches, and a wingspread of 15 inches. Both sexes are similar in size and color; upper parts are pale brownish, underparts are white. A black band across the forehead over the eye, and a black ring around the base of the neck are distinguishing marks in adults during the summer, but are obscure during the winter.

What does the piping plover eat?

They eat worms, fly larvae, beetles, crustaceans, molluscs, and other invertebrates (Bent 1928), which are plucked from the sand. Chicks begin feeding on smaller sizes of these same foods shortly after they hatch.

Where do they live and have their young?

Piping plovers use wide, flat, open, sandy beaches with very little grass or other vegetation. Nesting territories often include small creeks or wetlands. The piping plover breeds on the northern Great Plains, in the Great Lakes, and along the Atlantic coast (Newfoundland to North Carolina); and winters on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts from North Carolina to Mexico, and in the Bahamas West Indies. Breeding birds on the North Carolina coast are mostly found from the vicinity of Cape Lookout northward.

What are their nesting rituals?

Piping plovers arrive on their breeding grounds in late March or early April. Following establishment of nesting territories and courtship rituals, the pair form a depression in the sand generally on the upper beach close to the dunes (or in other shoreline habitats depending on the portion of the range). This is where the female will lay her eggs. The nest is often lined with stones or small fragments of shell. Occupied nests are generally 150 to 300 feet apart. Average clutch size is four eggs. Both eggs and young are well camouflaged. The young hatch about 27 to 31 days after egg laying. When predators or other intruders come close, the young squat motionless on the sand while the parents attempt to attract the attention of intruders to themselves, often by feigning a broken wing. The young fledge at about 4 weeks of age. If the eggs are destroyed early in the nesting season, the birds usually lay a second clutch. By early September both adults and young will have departed for their wintering areas.

Why is the piping plover threatened / endangered?

The primary threats to the piping plover are habitat modification and destruction, and human disturbance to nesting adults and flightless chicks. A lack of undisturbed habitat has been cited as a reason for the decline of other shorebirds such as the black skimmer and least tern.

Recreational and commercial development and dune stabilization have contributed greatly to the loss of piping plover breeding habitat along the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes.  In the Great Plains region, damming and channelization of rivers also have eliminated sandbar nesting habitat. Wintering habitat has probably also been lost to coastal development, and inlet and shoreline stabilization features.

Recreational pressure, and pedestrian and vehicular traffic can seriously affect breeding success. Over the past 40 years, the number of vehicles and people on beaches has increased significantly. Human presence can indirectly lower productivity by disrupting territorial establishment, courtship, egg laying, and incubation activities. Foot traffic, dune buggies, and other vehicles (including raking of beaches for trash) can directly crush eggs or chicks and the ruts left by off-road vehicles can trap flightless chicks.

Concurrently, increased urbanization and recreational pressure along the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast has created an unnatural proliferation of predators. Human developments near beaches have resulted in an increased number of skunks, raccoons, and gulls that are attracted to large quantities of refuse. The result has been predation of plover chicks and eggs and abandonment of nesting areas.

What is being done to prevent extinction of the piping plover?

  • Listing - The Great Lakes population of the piping plover was listed as an endangered species in 1986, and the Northern Great Plains and Atlantic Coast populations were listed as threatened species that same year.  It is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Recovery Plans - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed recovery plans that describe actions that need to be taken to help the bird survive and recover.
  • Research - Several cooperative research groups have been set up among Federal and State agencies, university and private research centers, and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Studies are being conducted to determine where plovers breed and winter, estimate numbers, and monitor long-term changes in populations.
  • Habitat Protection - Measures to protect the bird's habitat are conducted each year, including controlling human access to nesting areas, nest monitoring and protection, limiting residential and industrial development, and properly managing water flow. At Holgate, the beach is closed to public access during nesting season.
  • Public Education - Many States and private agencies are running successful public information campaigns to raise awareness of the plover's plight.

What can I do to help protect the piping plover?

  • Respect all areas fenced or posted for protection of wildlife.
  • Do not approach or linger near piping plovers or their nests.
  • If pets are permitted on beaches used by plovers, keep your pets leashed.
  • Don't leave or bury trash or food scraps on beaches. Garbage attracts predators which may prey upon piping plover eggs or chicks.

Learn more about the piping plover and other endangered and threatened species. Understand how the destruction of habitat leads to loss of endangered and threatened species and our nation's plant and animal diversity. See this Web site for a list of Threatened and Endangered Animals and Plants: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/


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Last updated: April 29, 2011