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Piping Plover Life History


ShorelinesPiping Plovers breed in two different regions in the United States: along ocean shores in the Northeast and along lakeshores, rivers, and alkali wetlands in the northern Great Plains and Great Lakes. They nest above the high water line in sandy areas with sparse vegetation including marshes, ocean shores, bays, spoil islands, reservoirs, alkali lakes, and rivers. In the winter they forage on coastal beaches, sandflats, and mudflats that are exposed during low tide. Back to top


Aquatic invertebratesPiping Plovers forage for freshwater and marine invertebrates typically within about 16 feet of the water's edge. They run, stop, and tilt over to peck and probe into the soft substrates for marine worms, small crustaceans, flies, water beetles, snails, and roundworms among others. They also hold 1 foot in front of their bodies and vibrate it in the sand as a wave passes, possibly to bring invertebrates to the surface where they can easily grab them. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundPiping Plovers nest in areas with loose sand above the high tide line. Male Piping Plovers scrape away sand, gravel, and shells with their feet to make a small depression. They make several small depressions or scrapes in the sand within their territory typically near small clumps of grass away from the water's edge, often near Least and Common Terns.

Nest Description

Nest scrapes or depressions don't take more than a day to build but a pair can take 5–10 days to decide on which scrape to use. Once they choose the scrape, they often line it with small pebbles or bits of shell. Each depression is about 4 inches wide and 0.5 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Egg Description:Creamy with fine brownish black splotches.
Condition at Hatching:Covered in white down below and brownish above. Eyes open and capable of walking within several hours.
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Ground ForagerPiping Plovers run quickly along the beach stopping frequently to pull or pick an invertebrate from the sand. Although they are quick on their feet they don't run around as much as other shorebirds. When they are not foraging they spend their time away from the water's edge where they blend in with the sand. Males establish territories soon after they arrive on their breeding grounds. They don't nest in tightly packed colonies but sometimes they share territorial boundaries with another plover, whose nest can be as close as 45 feet away. Along these boundaries males face each other and perform a "parallel-run display," a sort of cat and mouse game. One bird runs a short distance and stops. Then the other bird runs past the first and stops. They continue this chasing game until they run out of room, at which point they chase each other back to the start. If another bird enters a male's territory, he threatens them by crouching down, drawing his head in to make the ring around the neck stand out, fluffing up his wings, and calling. Males court females by tipping side to side in flight with deep and slow wingbeats above their territories. On the ground, males toss shells and pebbles aside and kick away sand to form a small depression that may be the future nest site. Here males also tilt their body, spread their wings, and fan their tail in front of a female. Prior to mating, males high-step around the female. Piping Plovers form monogamous pairs during the breeding season, but often change mates the following year. Both parents incubate the eggs, trading positions with the slightest possible exposure to the eggs. One parent tips up, while the other slides in underneath to start incubating. After the eggs hatch both parents brood the chicks. The chicks snuggle into their bellies, making the parents look like they have 8 or more legs. Their ground nests are vulnerable to numerous predators including dogs, rats, cats, weasels, skunks, raccoons, crows, ravens, and gulls as well as to beach recreationists who may not realize the highly camouflaged eggs, chicks, and adults may be underfoot. If they spot a predator near the nest, they try to lead it away by feigning injury. Back to top


Red Watch ListPiping Plovers are rare shorebirds with a global breeding population of just 8,400 individuals, according to Partners in Flight. In the Great Lakes region they are listed as federally endangered and along the Atlantic coast and Great Plains they are listed as federally threatened. They are a Red Watch List species with a Continental Concern Score of 18 out of 20. They are listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Population declines are due to direct and unintentional harassment by people, dogs, and vehicles; destruction of beach habitat for development; predation; and changes in water levels that affect availability of nesting habitat. Conservation efforts focus on protecting nests and nesting habitats by placing exclosures around nests to reduce the risk of predation or trampling. Conservation also focuses on predator control, controlling human recreation near breeding sites, and restoring breeding sites such as sandbars. Conservation efforts have helped stabilize populations especially along the Atlantic Coast, but the population in the Great Lakes region hasn't yet reached its stated recovery goals of 150 breeding pairs. Back to top


Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Elliott-Smith, Elise and Susan M. Haig. (2004). Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Fish, U.S. and Wildlife Service. (2003c). Recovery Plan for the Great Lakes Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus). Ft. Snelling, Minnesota: U.S. Fish and Wildl. Serv.

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North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2016). The State of North America's Birds 2016. Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

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

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

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