DESCRIPTION: The mountain plover is about the size of a killdeer. Its back and top of head is brown; its forehead is white. During the breeding season, a distinct black line can be seen from the base of bill to eye. Their underside is mostly white. They have long, erect legs. They are rarely found near water. "Prairie Ghost" is their nickname as they disappear from view by facing away from an observer and squatting motionless.
STATUS: The mountain plover was proposed for listing in 1999 (Federal Register 64:7587-7601). In 2003 the mountain plover was removed from the list of species proposed for listing.
REASON FOR CURRENT STATUS: The decline in population is due to a combination of factors --native grasslands being replaced by agriculture and urban development; early spring plowing and planting on dryland nesting sites; grazing practices that encourage taller grasses and forbs; and loss of prairie dogs and other burrowing rodents.
While mountain plovers are commonly found attempting to breed on plowed land in several states, surveys have found that successful nesting is interrupted by subsequent planting and crop growing before nesting is completed. This may create a "reproductive sink" for the species, where mortality on the cultivated lands is greater than the number of birds produced. In addition, livestock grazing practices that encourage taller grasses and forbs eliminate mountain plover habitat.
Mountain plovers share habitat with prairie dogs at many core breeding sites, and with kangaroo rats on winter habitat in California. But with a great number of prairie dogs eliminated throughout their range, mountain plover habitat has also been severely restricted.
REPRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: Mountain plovers nest in sparsely vegetated habitats such as short-grass prairies, sage brush, and semi-desert but also will nest on fallow and recently plowed ground. Nesting areas are associated with bare ground (~30%) and flat or slight slope (~ 5%). Mountain plovers often are associated with prairie-dog colonies or other forms of surface disturbance such as areas of cattle concentrations. Appropriate forage items are more abundant on prairie-dog towns than in contiguous habitats.
Breeding begins in March or April. The average clutch size is 3 eggs. Incubation takes 28-31 days. Chicks are mobile within a few days of hatching and move away from the nest site. Broods often forage around cattle watering tanks that are not seeping and have a dry surface. Generally forage on breeding territory but occasionally visit neutral feeding areas. They feed on ground-dwelling invertebrates like grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, and ants. They will also eat some seeds.
The main predators on eggs are coyotes (Canis latrans) and swift fox (Vulpes velox). Hawks and snakes will kill and eat chicks. Mortality also occurs from hail, aircraft strikes and overheating.
RANGE: Historically, the mountain plover bred throughout short-grass prairies of the western Great Plains from Montana to New Mexico and Texas. Mountain plovers disperse widely during the winter months.
POPULATION LEVEL: Current population less than 10,000 and has declined by 50 percent since 1966, according to 30 years of Breeding Bird Survey data, which is the highest rate of decline of any other grassland bird. The mountain plover is threatened by certain practices of plowing, sodbusting, and range management; oil and gas activities; and prairie dog control. Pesticides may also affect the population of the bird.
HABITAT: Endemic to the Great Plains, this species is associated with short-grass prairie dominated by blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis). Mountain plovers have been found in taller grasses at sites that were heavily grazed or associated with prairie-dog colonies.
Winters primarily in California on plowed fields, heavily grazed annual grasslands, or burned fields. Similar habitats reported in Texas: coastal prairies, alkaline flats, plowed fields, and Bermuda grass fields.
During fall migration, frequents landscapes on the southern plains similar to those used during breeding and wintering. Few observations of spring migrants.
MANAGEMENT AND PROTECTION: Management strategies such as intensive grazing and promoting prairie dog towns are beneficial for mountain plovers.
Because mountain plovers are cryptically colored, they are often overlooked in population surveys, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, so population numbers likely are underestimated.
Information summarized from:
Knopf, F. L. 1996. Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus). In The Birds of North America, No. 211 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, DC.
United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 1999. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants: proposed threatened status for the mountain plover. Federal Register 64:7587-7601.
Last updated: May 3, 2011