• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer

Piping Plover

Charadrius melodus ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: CHARADRIIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

Little round Piping Plovers hide in plain sight on sandy ocean and lake shores, blending right in with their sandy gray backs. It's not until they scurry down the sand on their orange legs that you're likely to spot these big-eyed shorebirds with a sharp black collar and an orange bill. They nest in soft sand away from the water's edge along the Atlantic Coast, Great Plains, and Great Lakes. They are endangered due to habitat loss, disturbance, and predation.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.7–7.1 in
17–18 cm
Weight
1.5–2.2 oz
43–63 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Least Sandpiper, smaller than a Black-bellied Plover.
Other Names
  • Pluvier siffleur (French)
  • Chorlitejo picocorto (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Despite traveling hundreds of miles between wintering and breeding sites, many Piping Plovers return to the same sites to breed and to spend the winter. Individuals that return to breed with the same mate often nest within 128 feet of the previous nest site. Birds breeding in the Great Lakes spend the winter in South Carolina and Georgia, whereas most birds from eastern Canada head to North Carolina for the winter.
  • Everyone needs a secret beach hideout. Researchers only recently discovered that more than one-third of the Piping Plover population that breeds along the Atlantic coast spends the winter in the Bahamas.
  • The saying that the early bird gets the worm is true for Piping Plovers. Pairs that nest early are more likely to successfully raise young than those that nest later in the season.
  • Intruders 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.
  • The oldest recorded Piping Plover was at least 16 years old when it was recaptured and rereleased in 2015 during banding operations in North Dakota. It had been banded in Saskatchewan in 1999.

Habitat


Shoreline

Piping 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.

Food


Insects

Piping 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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.2–1.4 in
3–3.5 cm
Egg Width
0.9–1 in
2.3–2.6 cm
Incubation Period
25–28 days
Nestling Period
1 days
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.
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.

Nest Placement

Ground

Piping 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.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Piping 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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Near Threatened

Piping 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.

Credits

Range Map Help

Piping Plover Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Medium-distance migrant. Inland breeding populations migrate to the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Coast. Atlantic Coast populations move south along the coast to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Find This Bird

Unlike other shorebirds, Piping Plovers forage alone or in small groups and they tend to stay a bit farther from the water's edge. When they aren't foraging, they are masters of camouflage, so it takes a bit of intense looking in soft sandy areas away from the water to spot them. Sometimes they crouch down in a tire track or footprint in the sand and virtually disappear. Scan these areas with your binoculars as the birds are easy to miss with the naked eye. Piping Plovers are on the U.S. endangered species list, so if you see one don't get too close. If one starts frantically calling or feigning injury, back away carefully as there may be an almost invisible nest nearby.

Get Involved

Help clean up a beach near you on International Coastal Cleanup Day. Learn more at Ocean Conservancy.

You Might Also Like

Bird-Friendly Tips for Coastal Habitat, YardMap, April 20, 2011.

Shorebird Foraging Strategies [video], Bird Academy.

×

Search

Or Browse Bird Guide by Family, Name or Shape
×
bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

The Cornell Lab will send you updates about birds, birding, and opportunities to help bird conservation. You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell or give your email address to others.