South Dakota ES - Piping Plover
Mountain-Prairie Region
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Threatened Species - Piping Plover



Ecological Services

Photo: FWS

Piping Plover
(Charadrius melodus)

FAMILY: Charadriidae

DESCRIPTION: The piping plover is a small, stocky shorebird. 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. The bird's call is a plaintive "peep-lo" whistle. Like other plovers, it runs in short starts and stops. 

STATUS: Endangered in the watershed of the Great Lakes (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ontario). Threatened in the remainder of its range: northern Great Plains (Iowa, northwestern Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan); Atlantic coast (Quebec, Newfoundland, Maritime Provinces and States from Maine to Florida); Gulf coast (Florida to Mexico); Bahamas and West Indies; and anywhere else found wild except where listed as endangered. (Federal Register 50:50726-50734, December 11, 1985).

REASONS FOR CURRENT STATUS: 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 4O 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, racoons, 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.

POPULATION LEVEL: In 1991, there were an estimated 745 breeding pairs in Canada, and 1,589 pairs in the United States for a total of 2,334 pairs.

RANGE: Piping plovers breed on the northern Great Plains, in the Great Lakes, and along the Atlantic coast (Newfoundland to North Carolina); and winter 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. 

HABITAT: Piping plovers nest along the sandy beaches of the Atlantic Coast, gravelly shorelines of the Great Lakes, and on river sandbars and alkali wetlands throughout the Great Plains region. They nest in sparsely vegetated areas that are slightly raised in elevation (like a beach berm). Breeding territories of piping plovers generally include a feeding area; such as a dune pond or slough, or near the lakeshore or ocean edge. These birds are primarily coastal during the winter, preferring areas with expansive sand or mudflats (feeding) in close proximity to a sandy beach (roosting).

REPRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: 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 an upper beach close to dunes (or in other shoreline habitats depending on the portion of the range). The nest often is lined with stones or small fragments of shell. Occupied nests are generally 15O to 3OO feet apart. Average clutch size is four eggs. Both eggs and young are well camouflaged. The young hatch about 27 - 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. 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. Piping plovers eats 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.

MANAGEMENT AND PROTECTION:(1) protect known breeding sites from destruction and modification, and nesting birds from human disturbance (about late March to August); (2) exclude free-roaming dogs and cats from beach areas during the nesting season; (3) control disposal of garbage or food scraps on beaches, since garbage attracts predators which may prey upon piping plover eggs or chicks; (4) educate the public about the species' plight; and, (5) identify and protect known wintering areas.

Information summarized from:

Bent, A.C. 1928. Life Histories of the North American Shore Birds, Vol. II. Dover Publications, Inc., NY. 412 pp.

Cairns, W.E. and I.A. McLaren. 198O. Status of the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) on the East Coast of North America. Am. Birds 34:206-208.

Haig, S.M. 1992. Piping Plover. In The Birds of North America. No. 2 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.).  The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Jurek, R.M. and H.R. Leach. 1977. Shorebirds. p. 301-320 in G.C. Sanderson, Management of Migratory Shore and Upland Game Birds in North America. International Assoc. Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Washington, D.C. 358 pp.

Niemi, G. and T. Davis. 1979. Notes on the Nesting Ecology of the piping Plover. Loon 51:74-79.

The Nature Conservancy. 1985. Element Abstract: Piping Plover. Unpublished Ms. 15 pp.

**U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1988. Atlantic Coast Piping Plover Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Newton Corner, MA. 77 pp.

**U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1988. Great Lakes and Northern Great Plains Piping Plover Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Twin Cities, MN. 16O pp.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1985. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Determination of Endangered and Threatened Status for the Piping Plover. Federal Register 5O (238):50726-50734.

Wilcox, L. 1959. A Twenty Year Banding Study of the Piping Plover. Auk 76:129-152.

Information obtained from:
"Endangered and Threatened Species of the Southeastern United States" - FWS Region 4

USFWS Piping Plover Species Profile page


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with Others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American People.
Last modified: July 10, 2019
All Images Credit to and Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Unless Specified Otherwise.
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