Midwest Region Endangered Species Conserving the nature of America

Endangered Species Program


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species program is conserving and restoring threatened and endangered species and their ecosystems.




U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Service in the Midwest


The Midwest Region includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. Find a location near you.


The Midwest Region includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Find a location near you »

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) - Great Lakes Population

Life History


Summarized from the Piping Plover (Great Lakes Population) Recovery Plan, except as noted


A breeding pair of piping plovers standing on a piece of driftwood.

A breeding pair of piping plovers in Wisconsin.

Photo by USFWS; Joel Trick

Piping plovers spend three to four months on their breeding grounds in the Great Lakes and then migrate to wintering areas along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. They start arriving in Michigan and Wisconsin in late April. Courtship begins and plovers perform aerial displays, dig nest scrapes, and even perform a ritualized stone-tossing display.



Piping Plovers perform courtship rituals to attract mates. The rituals involve displays and behavior that varies somewhat from bird to bird. The display most often seen by people is a courtship flight in which the male plover loops through the air, constantly peeping, often swooping very close to the ground near the the female.


As courtship progresses, a male and female bird may form a "pair-bond," they create nest territories that they actively defend and their courtship displays turn to actions that lead to mating and egg laying. As part of the courtship, several nest scrapes may be dug in the sand within the pair's territory and become the focal point of courtship displays. Nest scrapes are simple shallow depressions in the sand, occasionally lined with bits of seashells. If the female approaches the male while he is digging or sitting in a scrape, he will stand over the scrape and fan out his tail. The female may then squat down under his tail, indicating a possible acceptance of him as a mate. At this point, the male will often initiate a tattoo dance, in which he stands very erect, puffs out his chest, and rapidly and repeatedly beats the ground with his feet. Still dancing, he approaches the female until they are touching, ruffling her feathers with the rhythmic pounding of his feet. If the female does not back away, the male will then mount her and copulation occurs. From the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology "Animal DiversityWeb" at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Charadrius_melodus.html


Nest Sites

A piping plover nest with four eggs.

A piping plover nest is merely a shallow scrape in the sand where eggs are laid.

Photo by USFWS; Vince Cavelieri

Piping plovers nest, feed, and rear their young in open, sparsely vegetated sandy areas during spring and summer in the Great Lakes. On Lake Michigan, piping plovers nest on sand spits and sand beaches with wide, unforested dunes and swales or in the flat pans behind the primary dune.


Piping plovers place their nests in and around sparse, low-lying vegetation and cobble to provide some cover from predators. The light color of piping plover adults, eggs and chicks resembles the light color of sand and cobble, providing camouflage against predators. Beach vegetation may also provide escape cover from predators and help conceal nests.


Egg Laying and Brood Rearing

Finished nests are shallow depressions often lined with light-colored pebbles and shell fragments.


Females lay an egg about every other day until three or four eggs are laid. Males and females share incubation duties for 25 to 31 days until the eggs hatch. If the eggs are destroyed before hatching, piping plover pairs in the Great Lakes may re-nest. In other areas, piping plovers may renest up to four times, but in the Great Lakes region, they usually re-nest only once per breeding season. In the Great Lakes, most piping plovers have started nesting by mid to late May.


Eggs typically hatch from late May to late July in the Great Lakes. The chicks are precocial (they are relatively mature and can walk soon after hatching) and usually hatch within one half to one day of each other. They can feed themselves within a few hours.


Both parents take care of the chicks, but females may desert their broods as soon as 1 to 2 weeks after hatching to begin their migration. Males stay to tend the chicks.

Adults and chicks rely on their cryptic colors to avoid predators. Adults also use distraction displays (feigning injury, false brooding) to lure intruders away from their nests and chicks.


Piping plover chick amongst sparse beach plants.

Piping plover chick

Photo by USFWS

In Michigan, chicks fledge 21 to 30 days after hatching. Although piping plovers typically produce one brood per year, they sometimes bring off 2 broods during a summer. Adults start leaving their nesting grounds in the Great Lakes as early as mid-July, but most leave by mid- August. Young birds hatched during the summer start their migration a few weeks later than adults, and most are gone from the Great Lakes by late August.


Foraging and Diet

Piping plovers feed on exposed beach surfaces by pecking for invertebrates that are 1/2 inch or less below the surface. They feed mostly during the day and eat insects, marine worms, crustaceans, and mollusks as well as eggs and larvae of flies and beetles. A study in Michigan found that chicks ate insects including wasps and bees, beetles, and flies.


Piping plovers on the wintering grounds spend the majority of their time foraging.


Piping plovers feed in many habitat types within their breeding and wintering areas, including wet sand in the wash zone, inter-tidal ocean beach, wrack lines, washover passes, mud, sand and algal flats, and shorelines of streams, ephemeral ponds, lagoons, and salt marshes.


Where piping plovers forage depends on what habitats are available to them, the amount of prey, proximity of foraging areas to nest sites and the amount of human disturbance.



Piping Plover Home

Midwest Endangered Species Home