Piping plover (Charadrius melodus)

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Piping plover incubating at nest
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Piping plover fact file

Piping plover description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCharadriiformes
FamilyCharadriidae
GenusCharadrius (1)

The piping plover is a small, sandy coloured shorebird that is effectively camouflaged in its preferred beach habitat (2). In spring and summer, a distinctive breeding plumage develops, with a black band appearing across the forehead and encircling the base of the neck (4). At this time, the legs also turn from a light yellow to a bright orange colour and an orange ring appears at the base of the short black beak (5). Piping plovers can also be recognised by their characteristic, plaintive sounding "peep-lo" whistle (2).

Size
Size: 18 cm (2)
Wingspan: 38 cm (2)
Weight
43 – 63 g (2)
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Piping plover biology

The breeding season begins in late April and extends into late August (7), and young and adult plovers generally return to the same nesting area year after year (8). Males compete with each other for female attention by performing elaborate aerial and ground displays (8) (9). After this, the males scrape nests in the sand, tossing shells and small stones and twigs into them with their beaks and then stand beside them with their wings partially spread and tails fanned, repeating this behaviour until a female indicates interest. Once he has her attention, he continues the courtship ritual by performing a high-stepping "dance”, and the female eventually selects one of the scrapes to lay her eggs in (8) (9). Most birds remain paired throughout the breeding season but change mates between years, although mate retention from the previous year is fairly frequent (6).

The female lays 3-5 (usually 4) speckled sand-coloured eggs that are incubated by both adults for 25-31 days (7), with parents trading places every 30 - 45 minutes (6). Both the eggs and the young birds are well camouflaged. When predators or other intruders come too close, the young squat motionless on the sand while the parents attempt to attract the attention of intruders to themselves, often by feigning a broken wing (4). Gulls, crows, raccoons, foxes and skunks are threats to the eggs and falcons may prey on the adult birds (8). Young often leave the nest after hours of hatching but are tended until they fledge 21 to 35 days later (6). Both adults care for the young, but females commonly stop caring for the young after 14 to 20 days, while males often remain with them until they can fly (8). Females can begin to breed at one year of age and one brood per year is typical, although they are capable of laying several clutches if a nest is destroyed (6).

The diet consists of worms, crustaceans, insects, larvae, and molluscs, which are plucked from the sand (4) (7). Chicks begin feeding on smaller sizes of these same foods shortly after they hatch (4).

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Piping plover range

Breeding occurs in the U.S. and Canada, along the Atlantic coast (Newfoundland to North Carolina) and, inland, from central Canada through the northern Great Plains and the western Great Lakes region (6). During winter, the species is found in the southern U.S. on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts from North Carolina south to Mexico, and the Bahamas and West Indies (4).

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Piping plover habitat

Piping plovers nest on exposed sandy or gravely beaches, sandflats, reservoirs or river sandbars, as well as alkali wetlands. Sparsely vegetated areas that are slightly raised in elevation are preferred (4).

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Piping plover status

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List 2006 (1), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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Piping plover threats

Uncontrolled hunting brought the plovers close to extinction in the early 1900s, but the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 prohibited hunting and helped the population recover by the 1930s. However, by 1945, Atlantic coast beaches became very popular for recreation, which has been the main cause of the plover population decline since. The building of homes and resorts along shorelines, the dumping of sand on beaches, and the polluting of inlets has altered and destroyed plover breeding and feeding ground (5). Human presence disrupts territorial establishment, courtship, egg-laying, and incubation activities (4). Many nests, eggs and chicks are destroyed by foot traffic and vehicles driving along the coastal beaches, and the raking of beaches for rubbish (7). Ruts left by off-road vehicles can also trap flightless chicks (4). Additionally, potential predators of plover eggs and chicks, such as non-native dogs and cats and native crows, foxes, and raccoons, are often attracted to beaches by human garbage (5). In the Great Plains region, damming of rivers has also eliminated sandbar nesting habitat (4).

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Piping plover conservation

Censuses conducted in 1991, 1996 and 2001 have helped strictly monitor piper plover populations, and a further survey is scheduled for 2006 (3). The US Fish and Wildlife Service developed a recovery plan for the species after it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Residential and industrial development has since been restricted at plover breeding sites, as has vehicle and pedestrian access. Garbage disposal has been made illegal and free-roaming dogs and cats have been restricted from beaches during the nesting season. Wire fencing has also been erected around plover nests in some areas to protect them from predators and limit disturbance (5). However, measures to protect breeding and wintering beaches are costly and have had mixed success, with $3 million a year being spent in Atlantic USA alone, which will need to be maintained indefinitely (3). In order to help save this bird we must first learn how to effectively protect the threatened ecosystem upon which it depends (5), and public information campaigns over the plight of the piping plover and its beach habitat will undoubtedly need to play a vital part in this recovery process (8).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

For further information on the piping plover see:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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References

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2006)
    http://www.redlist.org
  2. Michigan State University Extension: Michigan Natural Features Inventory (January, 2006)
    http://web4.msue.msu.edu/mnfi/abstracts/zoology/Charadrius_melodus.pdf
  3. BirdLife International (January, 2006)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species
  4. About.com (January, 2006)
    http://birding.about.com/library/weekly/aa031401a.htm
  5. The South Carolina Wildlife Federation (January, 2006)
    http://www.scwf.org/articles/index.php?view=71
  6. Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce (January, 2006)
    http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Charad_melodu.htm
  7. Georgia Museum of Natural History (January, 2006)
    http://naturalhistory.uga.edu/gawildlife/birds/charadriiformes/cmelodus.html
  8. Texas Parks and Wildlife (January, 2006)
    http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/species/piplover
  9. Environment Canada: Species at Risk (January, 2006)
    http://www.speciesatrisk.gc.ca/search/speciesDetails_e.cfm?speciesID=687
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Image credit

Piping plover incubating at nest  
Piping plover incubating at nest

© Tom Vezo / naturepl.com

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Listen to the Piping plover

Piping plover incubating at nest
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Piping plover recordings by Geoffery A. Keller

© Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Macaulay Library
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
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United States of America
Tel: +1 (607) 254-2404
Fax: +1 (607) 254-2439
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