Habitat: The piping plover lives on open sandy beaches of lakeshores, river sandbars, ocean coasts, and alkali flats. On the east coast, nests are on sandy or gravel-sand beaches. On the prairies, gravel backshores of shallow saline lakes provide nesting grounds for most Piping plovers.
The plover’s nesting habitat depends on water levels and plant encroachment. Occasionally plovers nest in alternate areas (such as parking lots) but nest success is lower there than in natural habitats.
Summer Range: The Piping plover breeds in the northern Great Plains from Alberta to Oklahoma. They are also found along the American shore of Lake Michigan and along the Atlantic Coast, from Newfoundland to North Carolina. Piping plovers no longer breed on the Canadian shores of the Great Lakes.
Winter Range: The Piping plover winters along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from North Carolina to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. They also winter on the northern coast of the Gulf of California.
Food: The Piping plover eats insects and small aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. The plover will search for prey visually. When found, it will run rapidly, stop, and peck or quickly snatch the prey. During the winter, plovers spend most of their day feeding along beaches and sandflats. Their feeding time increases when temperatures decrease and tide levels subside.
Breeding Behaviour: The male courts the female with high marching-like steps, and exaggerated upright body posture. Females are capable of nesting when they are one year old, and rear only one brood each year. Plovers generally select new partners each nesting season. The Piping Plover breeds and winters in temperate regions of North America. Plovers only spend three to four months on their breeding grounds before departing for their winter habitats.
Nest Type and Egg Description: The Piping plover nests in only three areas in North America. The female lays four buff eggs with black speckles, on alternate days during early May. Both parents incubate the eggs in their sand or pebble-lined nest for 26-28 days.
Most successful eggs hatch within four to eight hours of each other. The downy young leave the nest within hours of drying off. Both parents carefully guard the chicks, but they feed on their own. They seek refuge and warmth under the adults in poor weather, and when danger arises, they freeze in a crouched position, making them difficult to find.
By 20-25 days old, plovers can make short flights and by 27 days, they can maintain flight. The male plover is left to rear the young when the female abandons the family in mid-July. To distract a potential predator, the plover may lead the predator away from the nest while feigning a wing injury.
Conservation Status: All Piping plover populations are considered endangered or threatened. Specifically, in Canada and the inland United States, the Piping plover is listed as “endangered”, and along the coast as “threatened.”
Piping plovers face many threats. Direct and unintentional harassment by people, dogs, vehicles, beach habitat destruction (for development), and water level regulation changes have all caused population declines.
Gulls, crows, raccoons, foxes, and skunks eat the eggs, and falcons may prey on the birds.
In 1991, the breeding population in North America was only 5,480 adults (36 per cent of which were in Canada). Canadian prairie Piping plovers may not be reproducing enough young to maintain the population.
On the Atlantic Coast, human recreational activities and predation are contributing to nesting losses. All-terrain vehicles, swimmers, and beachcombers damage the nests and eggs, and interrupt foraging by the chicks. Cattle also threaten plover habitats by trampling their nests on their way to the water for a drink.
Information on this page compiled by Colleen Sutton.
BirdLife International. http://www.birdlife.org
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/eng/sct5/index_e.cfm
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/.
Ehrlich, Paul R. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. Simon and Schuster, New York.
Godfrey, Earl W. 1986. Birds of Canada. National Museums of Canada, Ottawa.
Hinterland Who’s Who. http://www.hww.ca
Leslie, Scott. 2006. Wetland Birds of North America. Key Porter Books, Toronto. NatureServe. InfoNatura. http://www.natureserve.org/infonatura/