Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Species Spotlight: Piping Plover

July 28, 2011, 10:01 am

By Naomi Legros

Piping plovers are a North-American shorebird that breed on beaches along the Atlantic Coast of the United States and in Canada, usually away from water, near very little grass and basically no other vegetation. The birds spend their winters in the West Indies and the southern parts of America. You can find these birds in areas such as Cape Cod, the Great Lakes, North Manitou Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and other coastal areas in North America.

Piping plovers are named for the bell-like whistle sounds they make, which you can often hear before you can even spot them. Their latin name, charadrius melodus means "pleasantly singing." When standing still, piping plovers can easily blend in with the sand. They feed off of insects, crustacean and marine worms.

But camouflage isn’t enough; piping plovers are threatened and even listed as endangered in many states as the population decreases due to the increase of recreational uses of beaches. Human interactions lead to the destruction of nesting areas, harassment from pets, and adult plovers being scared away and from nests, leaving eggs and young plovers exposed to predators.

Piping plovers are very small birds, weighing around one to two ounces and measuring about 17 to 18 centimeters. They have sandy-colored feathers, stout, short, orange and black beaks and orange legs during breeding season. You can tell the difference between a male and a female by their neckbands (the male plovers have thicker ones). During the wintertime, their legs become a pale shade of orange and their beaks become completely black. Plovers are known for the distinctive dark bands on their head and neck, which both disappear as the weather gets colder. Their colors change once again during breeding season, as their bills become orange and their foreheads and breast turn black.

During the breeding period, the piping plovers lay four eggs, also camouflaged with the sand, in a shallow nest and is unbothered for 25 days. When the eggs hatch, they are independent within hours, being able to fetch for food on their own. The mother and father still have their protective role, fending off predators when they try to attack or eat the young.

These pint sized animals make up for their small stature with their distinctive voices. Thirteen different calls have been recorded that range from courting, to alarms and even threats. So if you can't see them because they blend in with the sand, or they are too small and easily could be looked over, they will make sure they will get noticed one way or another.

Fun Facts

Predators near a piping plover nest are chased and may be pecked or bitten. In Manitoba, one Killdeer was observed entering a piping plover territory where it was bitten so hard on the leg that it limped for the rest of the summer. So don’t let their tiny size fool you! They can sure put up a fight!

Piping plovers perform broken-wing distractions to come off as an easy target for potential predators and stray them away from a nearby nest or young.

"Foot trembling" is a technique that piping plovers use to shake wet areas of sand and conjure food items. In mud flats or wet sand, they extend one leg slightly and vibrate the area very fast. This way, the animals that they are searching for will rise up or move, making it easier for the piping plover to capture its food.

Image: An adult piping plover by the seashore. Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.