Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office
Conserving the Nature of America

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

Piping Plover

Piping Plover. Photo by James F. Parnell.

Status: Endangered and Threatened (with designated Critical Habitat)

Description and Life History: The piping plover is a small, stocky shorebird resembling a sandpiper. 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. The piping plover 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.

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 the upper beach close to the dunes (or in other shoreline habitats depending on the portion of the range). This is where the female will lay her eggs. The nest is often lined with stones or small fragments of shell. Occupied nests are generally 150 to 300 feet apart. Average clutch size is four eggs. Both eggs and young are well camouflaged. The young hatch about 27 to 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. The 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.

Range and Population Level: The piping plover breeds on the northern Great Plains, in the Great Lakes, and along the Atlantic coast (Newfoundland to North Carolina); and winters 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, the gravelly shorelines of the Great Lakes, and on river sandbars and alkali wetlands throughout the Great Plains region. They prefer to nest in sparsely vegetated areas that are slightly raised in elevation (like a beach berm). Piping plover breeding territories 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).

Reason for Current Status: The primary threats to the piping plover are habitat modification and destruction, and human disturbance to nesting adults and flightless chicks. 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.

For More Information on the Piping Plover...

Atlantic Coast Piping Plovers

Proceedings of the Symposium on the Wintering Ecology and Conservation of Piping Plovers

Species Contact:

John Hammond, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, 919-856-4520 ext. 28

Species profile revised on July 26, 2011.

Last Updated: August 6, 2015