FWS Focus



The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small migratory shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and gravel beaches in North America. There are three populations of piping plover: subspecies C. m. circumcinctus which has one population that occurs on the shorelines of the Great Lakes and another population that occurs along the rivers and lakes in the Northern Great Plains, as well as subspecies C. m. melodus that occursalong the Atlantic Coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses Northern Great Plains to include the piping plover population that breeds from Alberta, Canada to Colorado; however, some sources refer to piping plovers in Canada as the Prairie Canada population.

On December 11, 1985, the Atlantic Coast and Northern Great Plains populations were listed as threatened, and the population in the Great Lakes watershed was listed as endangered (50 FR 50626). In 1988, a recovery plan was written for the Atlantic Coast population, which was revised in 1996. Also in 1988, a recovery plan was finalized for the Great Lakes and Northern Great Plains populations. However, future recovery plans separated the two populations. The recovery plan for the Great Lakes population was revised in 2003, and a revised recovery plan for the Northern Great Plains population was completed in 2015.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated critical habitat for the Great Lakes breeding population of piping plovers on May 7, 2001 (66 FR 22938), and for the Northern Great Plains breeding population on September 11, 2002 (67 FR 57638). In Colorado, nesting areas on the aforementioned six reservoirs in Bent and Kiowa counties were considered for possible inclusion as critical habitat for the breeding population of the Northern Great Plains piping plover (67 FR 57647). However, these sites have not contributed significantly to the population; predation and water level fluctuations limit reproductive success (67 FR 57647). They are not considered to be essential (67 FR 57647) and may even be sink habitats, meaning that they attract birds, but do not contribute to population productivity (67 FR 57678). Therefore, no critical habitat has been designated for piping plovers in Colorado. Additionally, no critical habitat has been designated for the Atlantic Coast population.

Critical habitat for wintering piping plovers was designated on July 10, 2001, including for the Great Lakes and Northern Great Plains breeding populations, as well as birds that nest along the Atlantic Coast (66 FR 36038). A revised designation for four critical habitat units within Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in North Carolina was published on October 21, 2008 (73 FR 62816-62841). On May 19, 2009, a revised designation for 18 critical habitat units in Texas was published (74 FR 23476-23600).

The greatest threats to piping plovers on the Platte River system are destruction and modification of reservoirs, channelization of rivers and modification of rivers flows. The draft revised recovery plan of 2015 also noted that agricultural development, insecticide use, like neonicotinoids, increases in invasive species invasive species
An invasive species is any plant or animal that has spread or been introduced into a new area where they are, or could, cause harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health. Their unwelcome presence can destroy ecosystems and cost millions of dollars.

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and intraspecific aggression that results from increasing densities in populations also have negative impacts to piping plovers.

Scientific Name

Charadrius melodus
Common Name
Piping Plover
FWS Category

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers



Characteristic category



Wintering piping plovers use a variety of habitats and move among these patches in response to local weather and tidal conditions. Coastal habitats include sand spits, small islands, tidal flats, shoals and sandbars with inlets. Primary foraging habitats include sandy mud flats, ephemeral pools and seasonally emergent seagrass beds with abundant invertebrates, as documented in the draft recovery plan of 2015. In the Northern Great Plains, piping plovers nest on the unvegetated shorelines of alkaline lakes, reservoirs, or river sandbars, as documented in the 2009 field season summary report. 


The land near a shore.


A considerable inland body of standing water.

River or Stream

A natural body of running water.

Characteristic category



Piping plovers forage by gleaning invertebrates from substrate, with their prey base varying among locations across the Northern Great Plains, as documented by E. Elliott-Smith and S.M. Haig in 2004. Forage has been described as various macroinvertebrates, with fecal evidence suggesting that the birds select prey at roughly the same rate as its availability, as documented by F. Shaffer and P. Laporte in 1994, although a study of fecal material on the Northern Great Plains suggests that birds selected for less abundant beetles (Coleoptera) over that of flies (Diptera), as noted by D. Le Fer in 2006.

Characteristic category



Piping plovers appear to be low-density migrants throughout the midcontinent and are often observed singly, or in small groups, that use sites opportunistically, meaning that they do not have regularly-used stopover sites, as documented by V.D. Pompei and F.J. Cuthbert.

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Size & Shape

Piping plovers are small birds approximately 7 inches (17 centimeters) long with a wingspan of 15 inches (38 centimeters).


Piping plovers weigh between 1.4 to 2.3 ounces (40 to 65 grams).

Color & Pattern

Piping plovers are sandy grayish brown in color and have white underparts, as described by Cornell University in 2019. Adult breeding plumage includes a single black breast band, which is often incomplete, and a black bar across the forehead. During the late summer or early fall, the black bands fade to gray, leg color fades from orange to pale yellow and the orange-and-black bill turns to mostly black. Juveniles, from July through September, look similar to non-breeding adults, as noted by D.A. Sibley in 2016. Most adults begin a molt into breeding plumage before initiating the northward migration and complete the molt before arriving at breeding sites, as noted in the draft revised recovery plan in 2015.


The piping plover has a melodic call.

Characteristic category

Life Cycle

Life Span

Although piping plovers have been documented to live as long as 11 years, we estimate that with a 78 to 80% adult survival rate, the average life span is approximately five to six years, so most individuals will survive to breed in the next year if there is limited available habitat one year, as documented by L. Wilcox in 1959, as well as by J.B. Cohen and C. Gratto-Trevor in 2011 and D.H. Catlin and others.


Piping plovers start arriving on breeding grounds in early April, followed by courtship and nesting in mid-to-late April, as documented by D.H. Catlin and J.D. Fraser in 2006 and was later confirmed by others. Male plovers create a shallow depression on the ground which both adults line with small pebbles. Incubation lasts 25 to 28 days and is shared between the sexes, as Wilcox documented in 1959 and later W.E. Cairns, in 1982 and E. Elliott-Smith and S.M. Haig reconfirmed in 2004. Eggs hatch between late May and early June. Young leave the nest within hours and begin foraging immediately. Fledging occurs 25 to 35 days after hatching, as documented by J.M. Knetter and others in 2001 and later by D.H. Catlin and others in 2013. Piping plovers leave breeding grounds as early as mid-July and generally raise one brood a season, but may raise two broods under rare conditions, as documented by E. Elliott-Smith and S.M. Haig in 2004.



The Northern Great Plains breeding population of piping plover extends from Nebraska, north along the Missouri River through South Dakota, North Dakota and eastern Montana. It also includes alkaline, or salty, lakes along the Missouri River Coteau, which is a large plateau that extends north and east of the Missouri River, in North Dakota, Montana and into Canada, as noted in the Draft Revised Recovery Plan of 2016.

Their breeding range includes the Lower Arkansas River Basin in southeastern Crowley County, northeastern Otero County, northern Bent and Prowers counties and southern Kiowa County. Foraging areas overlap with breeding areas on Neegronda and Verhoeff reservoirs, as well as on the three ponds in Prowers County, as documented by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in 2019. E. Elliot-Smith and others noted in 2009 that small numbers breed in Colorado.

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