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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 »

Great Lakes Piping Plover

Cause of Declines and Continuing Threats



Shorelines and beaches developed for homes, recreation, and industry destroyed nesting habitat and caused the great decline that left only 17 pairs in 1986. We believe that enough suitable habitat remains to save the piping plover from extinction. Today, most of the best habitat is on public lands or privately owned land near residences. As a result, disturbance from people and their pets, along with predation are main threats to piping plover survival. In addition, many areas physically suitable for nesting no longer have piping plovers because they are so distant from where plovers currently nest. Lake level fluctuations and winter storms periodically change the amount and quality of habitat at individual sites.


Great Lakes Population of Piping Plovers


Declines and Continuing Threats


Conservation and Recovery


Life History


Spring and Fall Migration


Shoreline development continues to be a threat to piping plovers, both on nesting grounds in the Great Lakes and throughout their wintering areas. Permanent developments, such as houses, docks, and picnic shelters convert shoreline nesting areas to other land uses. Recreational use is more transitory but can be just as permanently damaging. Large numbers of people on beaches can prevent nesting. Recreational areas with lower numbers of beach visitors may have nesting piping plovers but few young survive because eggs and chicks are lost.


Even with predator exclosures and psychological fencing, these piping plovers may experience increased disturbance by humans and their pets.


Inlet dredging and artificial structures, such as breakwalls and groins, can eliminate breeding and wintering areas and change sedimentation patterns that leads to the loss of nearby beach and dunes. Marina construction can also disrupt natural dynamic wave and sediment processes that maintain shoreline habitats. Deposition of dredge spoil, a practice occasionally considered beneficial to piping plovers and used to mitigate effects of habitat destruction, may actually be detrimental, depending on placement. In Texas, piping plovers avoid islands of dredged material in favor of natural habitats. In the Laguna Madre, these artificial islands impede water flow between tidal flats and the lagoon, resulting in vegetation encroachment that lowers the quality of important foraging habitat for piping plovers.




Photo by Richard Kuzminski

Studies conducted from 1981 to 1999 found that predators broke or ate eggs from many nests and researchers thought that predators were the main cause of chick losses. Researchers found it difficult to determine conclusively that predators caused the losses and to identify the predator species responsible. To get better data on predation, in Michigan, researchers identified tracks around nests, monitored nests with video and still cameras, experimented with artificial nests, and collected anecdotal data on predation. Additionally, teams of investigators monitored some nests 24 hours a day for an entire breeding season to document predation. These research efforts identified many predators including herring gull, ring-billed gull, merlin, peregrine falcon , great horned owl, snowy owl, American crow, common raven, red fox, coyote, raccoon, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, striped skunk, cats, and dogs.


Homes and businesses near beaches attract predators such as skunks and raccoons which increases the threat of predation for plovers that nest on those beaches.


Disturbance by People and Pets


Vehicles on beaches threaten piping plovers on summer and winter areas. Although driving is unlawful on publicly-owned Great Lakes shoreline, people drive vehicles at a number of sites and on private beaches. Vehicles can crush eggs and kill adults and chicks. Tire tracks on beaches, especially early in the breeding season, may prevent piping plovers from nesting or cause them to desert nests.


Driving vehicles on beaches is legal in many areas of the wintering grounds and displaces piping plovers from preferred areas causing greater energy expenditure that may affect their survival. In Texas for example, although dune areas are protected, beach driving is allowed in many areas from the mean low tide line to the line of vegetation on the shore.


Boating, jet-skiing, and flying aircraft also disturb plovers if they come too close places where plovers are nesting or feeding.


Beach Recreation

Beach-walking, bike riding, kite flying, fireworks, bonfires, horseback riding, kayaking, windsurfing, camping, and close-up photography are some of the recreational activities that disturb piping plovers while nesting and feeding. Large numbers of people walking on a beach may prevent piping plovers from nesting. People walking with their dogs create even more disturbance and a greater threat to breeding piping plovers. Pedestrians and their dogs may repeatedly flush plovers off their nests, exposing eggs to extreme temperatures and predators. After hatching, chicks may become separated from adults by pedestrians or repeatedly flushed from preferred feeding areas, making them more susceptible to the elements and predators. Dogs frequently chase and try capturing adults and chicks.


In wintering sites, human disturbance continues to decrease the amount of undisturbed habitat and appears to limit local piping plover abundance. Dogs increase disturbance to wintering piping plovers; pedestrians have been observed walking their dogs through congregations of feeding shorebirds and encouraging their dogs to chase the birds. Disturbance also reduces the time migrating shorebirds spend foraging and has been implicated as a factor in the long-term decline of migrating shorebirds at staging areas.


Small Population Size

Small populations are inherently at greater risk of extinction than larger populations. Small populations, isolated from other populations, can be destroyed by random events which would be unlikely to happen to larger, widespread populations. Similarly, small isolated populations are more strongly affected by natural, random changes like changes in sex ratios or ability to find mates, which all influence population persistence. For example, one study found in the Great Lakes population that up to 29% of adults may not mate throughout the breeding season, which suggests that they could not find a mate.


Inbreeding depression, a reduction in fitness resulting from decreased genetic variability due to a high incidence of matings between close relatives, may also affect this population. Between 1993 and 1999, 6 of 14 matings of banded plovers, whose parents were known, were between close relatives (parents and offspring, full siblings or half siblings). These observations, along with small population size, indicate that inbreeding depression and loss of genetic diversity through a population bottleneck are potential concerns. Further analyses of band data and genetic material will provide greater insight into the extent of inbreeding and genetic variability present in this population.



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