North Dakota Field Office
Mountain-Prairie Region
Piping Plover
(Charadrius melodus)


piping plover by Gene Nieminen & US Fish & Wildlife Service
Photo by Gene Nieminen & US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Official Status:  Threatened in U.S. Northern Great Plains, including North Dakota and Montana. Endangered in Great Plains of Canada.  Species are considered threatened when they are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of their range.

Listed:  50 Federal Register 50733; December 11, 1985 (entire range, except Great Lakes region, where it is listed as endangered.)

Historical Status:  In the Great Plains, it appears the piping plover formerly was more widely-distributed than it is today.  Historically, breeding piping plovers occurred in at least 28 North Dakota counties.  Plovers were observed in 20 counties during the 1990s.

Present Status:  North Dakota is the most important State in the U.S. Great Plains for nesting piping plovers.  The State’s population of piping plovers was 496 breeding pairs in 1991 and 399 breeding pairs in 1996.  More than three-fourths of piping plovers in North Dakota nest on prairie alkali lakes, while the remainder use the Missouri River.  The North Dakota population spends fall to early spring primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, especially the Texas coast.

Habitat:  In the Great Plains, piping plovers inhabit barren sand and gravel shores of rivers and lakes.  Plovers avoid dense vegetation.  Nearly all natural lakes used by plovers in North Dakota are alkaline in nature and have salt-encrusted, white beaches.  Such alkali lakes probably are selected due to their sparse vegetation.  Beaches used by piping plovers generally are 10-40 yards wide.  Piping plovers also use barren river sandbars.  In North Dakota, this habitat type is found on the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.

Life History:  The breeding season in North Dakota extends from mid-April through August.  Pairs remain mated for nearly all of the breeding season.  Pairs are territorial, which means they defend their nest area from other piping plovers.  A 4-egg clutch is laid in a shallow depression in the open, sand/gravel substrate.  Both sexes share in incubation, which lasts about 28 days.  Plover chicks are able to walk and feed within hours of hatching.  Chicks can fly in about 21 days.  Piping plovers feed on open beaches on insects and crustaceans.

Aid to Identification:  The piping plover is a small, stocky shorebird that is distinctly pale, matching the beaches it inhabits.  Prominent markings include a black band across the upper forehead and another across the upper breast.  The similar killdeer has two black breastbands and is larger and darker.  The black bands are faint in juvenile piping plovers, and in all piping plovers during winter.  Piping plovers have a distinct melodic, flute-like call.

Reasons for Decline:  Habitat destruction and poor breeding success are major reasons for the population decline.  In North Dakota, plovers that use prairie alkali lakes suffer significant losses of eggs and chicks to predators that have increased in abundance in recent decades.  Construction of reservoirs on the Missouri River has resulted in a loss of sandbar habitat.  Plovers using the remaining sandbars on the river are susceptible to predation, direct disturbance by people, and water fluctuations as the result of dam operations.

Recommendations:  Avoid areas of alkali lakes and Missouri River sandbars where piping plovers are present.  Leave the area immediately if piping plovers are observed.  Advise others to do likewise.  Restrain pets when near piping plovers.  Wherever possible near alkali lakes, reduce trees, rockpiles, and abandoned vehicles and buildings that often harbor predators such as crows, raccoons, and skunks.

Comments:  Piping plovers often share sandbars with least terns, an endangered species.

References:  Draft revised recovery plan for piping plovers breeding on the Great Lakes Northern Great Plains of the U.S. by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1994.


December 2011


View Critical Habitat Maps For Great Plains Breeding Piping Plovers

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Last updated: February 19, 2013