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Black-bellied Plover Life History



Black-bellied Plovers breed in the northernmost reaches of North America and Eurasia, in dry heath tundra as well as wet tundra. They nest in lowlands, never in high mountainous areas, but they do use ridges and foothills. Compared to other high-latitude shorebirds such as Ruddy Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Red Knot, and Sanderling, Black-bellied Plovers nest in many kinds of tundra habitats, and they forage in tundra as well as in wetlands far from the nesting territory. Common plants in nesting areas include black crowberry, red bilberry, lingonberry, bog Labrador tea, arctic willow, netleaf willow, dwarf birch, arctic bell-heather, purple saxifrage, three-toothed saxifrage, Indian milkvetch, smooth northern-rockcress, grayleaf draba, mountain avens, large-flower sandwort, arctic poppy, capitate lousewort, alpine bistort, and many arctic sedges, grasses, mosses, and lichens. Migrants in the continent’s interior favor lowlands over mountains and may stop over in harvested agricultural fields (both wet and flooded), sod farms, sporting fields, wet prairies, and the muddy or gravelly edges of lakes, ponds, and rivers. Wintering birds use tidal creeks, estuaries, lagoons, and shorelines, where they feed on mudflats and beaches. They often use nearby agricultural fields as well, especially during high tides, when mudflats are underwater. In some places, they forage on rocky shorelines. Black-bellied Plovers roost together at high tide and overnight on beaches, in saltmarsh, and sometimes upland habitats such as farm fields.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Black-bellied Plovers eat invertebrate prey, mostly insects, worms, crustaceans, and bivalves, which they pick or pull from muddy or sandy ground. They sometimes glean insects from low vegetation as well. Like other plovers, they run forward, pause, look and listen, and then either seize prey quickly or else move on to the next spot. Their large eyes help them spot prey, even at night, when they forage during lower tide cycles, especially when there is moonlight. As tides start to fall, they become more active in their roosts, and about 2 hours after highest tide they fly toward the first available mudflats, feeding constantly until the rising tide covers the last of the mudflats. On marine mudflats, Black-bellied Plovers eat many kinds of marine worms (especially nemerteans and polychaetes), tiny bivalves, tiny crustaceans (amphipods, isopods), snails, shrimp, fiddler crabs, and rarely small fish. In rocky habitats they also eat small sea anemones and sea urchins. On the breeding grounds, their diet includes far more insects, especially larvae of flies, beetles, moths, and butterflies, and they also eat ripe berries of tundra plants before migrating, along with seeds and small amounts of sand or gravel. During migration and winter, farm fields and other open habitats also provide insect larvae, as well as earthworms, cutworms, crickets, and grasshoppers.

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Nest Placement


The male selects the nest site, a relatively dry, flat, bare spot in the heath, sometimes in gravel.

Nest Description

The male begins to make a small scrape with bill, feet, and breast, which the female lines with lichen, moss, willow, and other plants. The cup averages about 5.3 inches across and 1.8 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.0-2.2 in (4.99-5.68 cm)
Egg Width:1.4-1.4 in (3.57-3.66 cm)
Incubation Period:23-27 days
Egg Description:

Pinkish, greenish, or brownish, with distinct dark spots heaviest around large end.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered with down and able to walk soon after hatching. Feed themselves within one day.

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Ground Forager

As soon as males return to breeding grounds, and snow and ice are mostly clear, they claim territories and begin displaying. They fly slowly, with exaggerated wingbeats (“butterfly flight”), high over the territory, singing as they display. They then glide earthward with the neck stretched out and wings held straight out from the body. After landing, if a female is present, males may rush toward her, suddenly stop, raise and fan the tail and hold the bill up. Males defend territories against other males vigorously, lowering the head, raising the tail and calling. They may also threaten and chase golden-plovers and sometimes other shorebirds. Black-bellied Plover nests are usually separated by at least a quarter mile. Both adults defend the nest, share incubation duties, and care for the young. In most places, these plovers also maintain feeding territories in winter, usually smaller than 0.15 acres, and chase or threaten others that come too near. Because tidal activity constantly changes the extent of foraging habitat available, these are known as “moving territories.” Nevertheless, studies with color-marked birds showed that the same plovers consistently used the same feeding sites at the same stage of the tidal cycle throughout the nonbreeding season. In places such as farm fields, foraging birds show no signs of maintaining feeding territories and forage quite close to one another.

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Common Bird in Steep Decline

Black-bellied Plovers are relatively common shorebirds, but their worldwide distribution and arctic nesting grounds make it difficult to estimate population trends. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 840,000 and rates the species a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. The greatest conservation concern for this and other high-arctic nesters that rely on tidal wetlands is climate change. Rising sea levels are forecast to reduce available foraging habitats for migrants and wintering birds in the near future, and especially rapid warming in the arctic is changing the habitats found there.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Poole, Alan F., Peter Pyle, Michael A. Patten and Dennis R. Paulson. (2016). Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), version 3.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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