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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.

Keys to identification Help

Shorebirds
Shorebirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Piping Plovers are round and stocky little plovers that frequently stand in a horizontal position. They also have round heads and large dark eyes that give them a big-eyed look. The bill is short and stubby.

  • Color Pattern

    Piping Plovers are sandy grayish brown birds with white underparts and a narrow, often broken collar. They have yellowish orange legs in all seasons. In the breeding season, they have an orange bill with a black tip, a black collar, and a black line on the forehead. In the nonbreeding season, the bill is black and the collar fades to gray and doesn't go all the way around the breast.

  • Behavior

    Piping Plovers are nearly invisible until they run a short distance, stop, and tilt forward to pull an insect or worm from the soft sand. They tend to forage alone or in small groups sticking to the higher parts of the shoreline relative to other shorebirds.

  • Habitat

    Piping Plovers breed along ocean shores in the Northeast and along lakeshores and alkali wetlands in the northern Great Plains and Great Lakes. They nest above the high water mark in soft sandy areas with sparse vegetation. In the winter they use coastal beaches, sandflats, and mudflats.

Range Map Help

Piping Plover Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Similar Species

The 4 species of small plovers can be separated into two groups based on back color. Wilson's and Semipalmated Plovers have darker brown backs while Snowy and Piping have paler backs. Wilson's Plover is also larger with a longer and thicker bill than a Piping Plover. Semipalmated Plovers always show a dark line or smudge between the eye and the bill that Piping Plovers never have.

Snowy Plovers have longer and thinner bills than Piping Plovers, and grayish (not orange) legs. Killdeer are larger than Piping Plovers with a longer bill, 2 black bands on the chest, and a much darker brown back.

The short, stubby bills of plovers help distinguish them from sandpipers, such as Sanderlings, which have bills as long as their head or longer.

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.

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