Piping Plover, Atlantic Coast Population
Northeast Region

Lesson Plans

Plover Survival: A Simulation Game



broken wing display illustration Students engage in an activity that simulates 1) the feeding behavior of the piping plover, and 2) factors that disturb both feeding and nesting of this threatened species. This activity is designed to get students actively thinking about the piping plover's needs and the things that are threatening this bird's survival. The game is placed first in the lesson plans, but can be used after the students view the slides if the teacher desires.


  1. Feeding behavior of the piping plover:
    • Plovers feed on small invertebrates by poking their beaks into the intertidal mud.
    • Plovers move while feeding.
  2. Human impact on feeding and piping plover survival:
    • Humans, by their presence, prevent plovers from feeding.
    • People leave trash on the beach and this attracts animals that prey on the plovers, chicks and eggs.
    • Kites look like predators and cause plovers to move away from their feeding areas.
    • Off-road vehicles directly or indirectly kill chicks every year.
  3. The impact of predators on piping plover feeding and survival:
    • Dogs, cats, skunks, fox, and raccoons prey on the piping plover.
    • Gulls are fast moving birds that prey on plover chicks and eggs.
    • The presence of a predator can slow down the process of feeding.


  • Area: outdoors or indoors (with room enough to move around freely)
  • 1 rope (minimum length: 16 ft)
  • 4 small bags or sacks (sandwich bags or lunch bags will work)
  • 1 beach ball or frisbee, small ball, etc. (something two people might typically play on the beach)
  • 1 additional rope (min. 16 ft. long marked off in 4 ft. intervals) or 5 orange goal cones or other markers to establish boundaries
  • soda cans, candy in wrappers, a couple of bags of chips, or other such snacks
  • 1 - 2 bags of dried beans (pinto, kidney, split pea, etc.) (The activity will work best if the beans blend in floor or ground where you will be running this activity. Paper dots can be used instead of beans if you will be doing this inside and can easily clean up the mess.)
  • 1 large inner tube, tire or ball (optional activity)
  • 1 kite (optional activity)
  • 1 large sheet of paper or chalk board for recording data

Part 1- Feeding Habitat and Behavior

Introduction to the Piping Plover
Introduce students to the concept of threatened and endangered species. Tell them that they will be studying the piping plover which is a threatened species. (Refer to "Additional Resources and Information.") Explain that they are about to participate in an activity that is designed to help them understand some of the piping plovers' behavior and needs as well as the things that are threatening the lives of these birds.

Set-up Information

  1. Ask students to describe the wave action at the water’s edge on a beach. Is the water always at the same level or does it vary? Describe the area over which a wave has just passed; is it wet or dry? Ask for two volunteers that will move the rope to simulate gentle wave action. Have them demonstrate this motion.

  2. Ask students if they have ever seen small birds along the water’s edge. If so, what did they observe? Were the birds feeding? How did you know? Did they move when the water approached? How? If students have not observed these behaviors, explain that birds move back and forth with the advancing and retreating waves and that they peck and poke with their beak small invertebrates in the mud. Ask for four volunteers: two to model the behavior of adult piping plovers and two to model the behavior of the chicks. (You may want to actually label these volunteers so that you can distinguish between the adults and chicks.) If this is a young group, there will probably be little hesitancy to participate - this is more like a game than work! If the group is older, stress the idea that you are all modeling behavior in order to see what can actually happens on the beach. Models are frequently used by scientists to try and determine what is happening in nature.

    Explain that in this model, or simulation, the birds (played by the students) will be feeding on beans (the beans, if that's what you've chosen to work with, represent the small invertebrates found in the mud, sand and wrack). If you haven’t already done so, spread the beans (or whatever you’ve chosen to used for "food") on the ground or floor near "the water's edge" and hand out small sacks or bags to each of the four piping plovers. When they actually find a bean, they need to put it in the sack that represents their stomach. They can only pick up one bean at a time and with one hand - the other hand must be holding their "stomach."


    Round 1: Establishing Standards for a Healthy Diet
    Have the student piping plovers (adults and chicks) move with the waves and model this feeding behavior for approximately 30 seconds. Count each piping plover's beans at the end of this time.

    It is important that students understand right away that the piping plover needs a certain amount of food (beans) to survive. The necessary amount of food determined in this round.


    Record the amount of beans that each bird obtained on a large sheet of paper or board. (A suggested chart is shown below.) The range of beans collected during this round will be your standard for a healthy diet. As the game progresses, if the plover collects only half this amount, it will survive, but be unhealthy. If the plover collects only one quarter of this number, it may eventually die.

Part 2- Human Impact on Feeding

Set-up Information
  1. Ask students if this is what the beach is normally like in the summertime (birds feeding on a deserted beach). Some will probably say "yes" and others will give responses that indicate people-related activities also take place on the beach. Ask them to describe different types of people-related activities that occur on beaches. (What do you do when you go to the beach? What do other people do? Do people ever eat on beach? Do they ever leave their garbage behind?) Get a variety of responses from the students. Make sure they include some sort of game activities (like playing frisbee, catch, kite flying, etc.)
  1. Ask the students what they think will happen to the plovers if people or animals, like dogs, come near. Most students will know that the birds will move away. Ask them if the plovers can feed when this happens.


  2. Explain to the students that piping plovers are very sensitive to human disturbance. If people approach while the birds are feeding, the plovers will move (by flying or running) immediately to a safer area like the dunes or vegetation.


    Establish an area that will be a "safe haven" for the plovers. This should be located at least 10 feet away from where they are feeding at the water's edge. Mark off this area with the second rope, goal cones, or other objects.

    Establish 4 ft. wide "corridors" through which the plovers will move from the water's edge to the safe haven if any form of disturbance, like humans, approach. (See diagram.)

  3. Explain to the students that each plover will have a corridor in which to feed and move. He or she must stay (for the sake of the game) within his or her corridor. If a person is in a plover’s corridor, that plover has to be in the "safe haven." In other words, the plovers must anticipate the approach of a human and run to the safe haven before the person is actually in their corridor. Typically, the plovers will first freeze (their coloration will cause them to blend in with the environment and this will help prevent predation from animals) and then they will move quickly to safety.

    Note: In real life, piping plovers will move long before people get as close as they do in this simulation game. They have been known to respond to pedestrians who are as far away as 50 meters (150 feet)!! It might be interesting to discuss this with the students after playing this next round and estimate how far away that actually is. In addition, the distance that the plovers must move from water’s edge to a safe haven is usually much further than that used in this game

    Ask for six students to volunteer for the next round (in addition to the plovers).

    Round 2:
    1. Have the plovers resume feeding (along with the wave action). Send two (students) pedestrians to walk along the water's edge at normal walking pace. When they are through...
    2. Send two (students) kids playing ball or frisbee to move through the area. They are to act like they normally would at the beach (fooling around, etc.). As they pass out of the area...
    3. Send two more people carrying soda cans, bags of chips, and other snacks throughout the area. They should walk along dropping some of their snacks.

    Count and record the beans obtained by each plover. Compare the results with those of the first round. Bear in mind more time was spent on this round!

    Discuss the number of beans obtained. Will these be healthy plovers? Will they even survive on this beach?

    Ask the plovers how they feel physically. Are they tired? Given that real plovers will actually be running further than the 10 feet established in this game, what has the class learned about how much energy the birds must expend to obtain food? Point out to the students (if they don’t bring it up) that now (with human interference) the plovers are using more energy to obtain less food.

Part 3- Predation and Survival

Set-Up Information
Ask the students if the trash left by the pedestrians in the last round affected the plovers' ability to feed. Explain to the students that when people leave trash in an area, it attracts other kinds of animals like cats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and gulls.

Gulls are fast moving birds that prey on piping plover eggs and chicks. When a gull (or other predator) approaches an adult plover (or pair of plovers) feeding with their young chicks, both chicks and adults respond. The adult will move away faking an injury (like a broken wing) with the intent to lead the predator away from the chicks. If both adults are present, the second parent will lead the chicks to safety. Because they are unable to fly, chicks are easy prey for gulls.

Throughout this round, chicks should be squatting on the ground while the adults remain standing. This distinguishes between the adult's ability to actually flee from a gull by flying away and the chick's inability to fly or move fast enough to escape. Assume that adults are parents feeding with their young chicks.

Ask for a volunteer to model the behavior of a gull. He or she will be moving fast through the beach area. If during this time the gull can tag a plover chick, this constitutes an attack (and the plover dies). During this round, as before, whenever possible the plovers are feeding.


Round 3:
Plovers should resume feeding. Allow the gull to enter the area for 30 seconds. Count and record the beans and living plovers after this time. Discuss the impact of a gull in the area on the ability of a plover to feed and survive. (Note: The adult's ability to feed isn't affected by the presence of the gulls unless their chicks are with them.) One of the most important things for students to understand is that gulls specifically prey on the chicks and eggs. Remind them that the trash we leave behind helps attract predators like the gull. And, when we bring pets like dogs along with us, we are essentially bringing along another predator!


Play additional rounds as described below if you want to spend more time on this, or begin the debriefing. NOTE: Do not substitute an additional round for the debriefing. It is essential that the students begin thinking about resolving the problems posed by this simulation, both for preparation for the next activity and for the sake of the piping plover's survival!


Ask the students to summarize what’s happened to the plover's ability to obtain food based on number of beans recorded at the end of each round. Ask the plovers (chicks and adults) how they felt during all of this. Ask the students to translate emotional frustration to physical stress on the birds as they try to meet their biological needs. They may respond by saying they felt tired or frustrated. Then ask them how this interference might affect the plovers ability to feed.

Ask the students to summarize what has happened to the size of the piping plover population on this beach. How big is the population now compared to what we started with? Will the plovers continue to nest here? If not, where will they go? What if the same type of problems occur on other beaches? What does this mean for the survival of this bird?


Plovers need space and so do people. Ask the class what can be done so that both the plovers' and peoples' needs can be met. Listen to all of their ideas and try to get the class to agree on one. This idea should involve some sort of beach management. Have the class try and come up with things that might prevent this idea from working. What happens if people don't want to go along with the management plan? What kinds of things can be done about this? You may want to try one more round to see if their idea works. Explain to the students that people are implementing management programs right now where piping plovers nest. Their programs may not be unlike that which the students themselves have come up.

Rotate new students into the roles of the piping plovers for additional rounds if you haven’t already done so.

Part 4- The Kite: Another Predator?

Set-up Information
To piping plovers, kites look like large, predatory birds. In fact, they have been known to respond to the presence of a kite that was over 100 meters (109 feet) away!! Explain this to the students and ask one or two of them to volunteer to fly a kite on the "beach." By running around, the kite can be kept in the air for brief periods of the time (assuming there is little wind wherever you are). Every time the birds see the kite in air, they must stop feeding and seek protection in the dunes or vegetation (in the "safe haven").


Round 4:
Have the birds resume feeding and let the student(s) fly the kite nearby for 30-60 seconds depending on their success at getting it up. Count and record the beans the plovers have picked up.

Part 5- Off Road Vehicles

Set-up Information
If students don’t know about off road vehicles, or ORVs, explain to them that these are vehicles that some people like to drive on the beach. ORVs affect piping plover chicks in a variety of ways. The deep tracks they create generally run parallel to the water's edge, and the chicks sometimes climb in and can’t get out. This, obviously, blocks access to their food. In addition, if they do get stuck in the tire tracks, they are frequently run over by another ORV passing through the area. Another way by which ORVs affect chicks has with the fact that the chicks freeze in place when frightened (as they do when people approach). As an ORV approaches, the chicks freeze and are often run over. This threat can be included in this simulation game, but there is a fine line between playing this part well and playing it with a sadistic attitude. This is a very real and significant problem for the plovers, but if you as a teacher feel that it might cause more harm than good, don’t include it!

Have two students volunteer to "drive" an ORV as represented by a large tire, inner tube, or ball. To "drive" it, the students must keep the tire (or substitute) in between them with one hand on it at all times. If the tire touches a plover, it dies. Students are allowed to make one fairly direct crossing of the beach. (You may elect to give more than one crossing.) The chicks should be squatting for this round.


Round 5:
Have the birds resume feeding and allow the ORV students to pass through. Count and record each piping plover's beans and each living plover at the end of the round.

Discuss attitudes of responsible versus irresponsible ORV operators. Are there responsible ORV drivers? Explain. If you’re a "responsible" ORV operator, does this mean you won’t hit any piping plover chicks? Explain.


Last updated: March 21, 2012
All images by FWS unless otherwise noted.