Protecting Piping Plovers

The piping plover was named for its melodic mating call. It’s an enchanting sound if you are lucky enough to be on a beach with several pairs of birds at the right time.

There are three populations of piping plovers: Atlantic Coast, Northern Great Plains and Great Lakes. And while the areas of the country may vary, piping plovers that live in all of those areas are all shorebirds that prefer specific habitats: sandy beaches, sand flats at the ends of spits, barrier islands, sand dunes, sparsely vegetated dunes, and wash over areas in between dunes. They eat the insects and worms that live in those sandy spaces and then roost in the vegetation nearby.

You can understand why populations of piping plovers are in trouble. The birds thrive in the same areas that people like to inhabit and the piping plover’s habitat and breeding ground is losing out to human development and recreation.

All three populations of piping plover are in trouble, but the birds in the Northern Great Plains and Atlantic Coast are in somewhat better shape. They are considered threatened; there are about 1400 breeding pairs in each of those populations. The Great Lakes population is endangered with only about 32 breeding pairs. And all three populations winter along the South Atlantic, Gulf Coast and Caribbean beaches and barrier islands.

Piping Plover MigrationThe birds arrive in their breeding grounds between mid-March and mid-May. They stay there for three to four months and the female lays three to four eggs in shallow nests. Both male and female birds incubate the eggs, which hatch in about 30 days. Both males and females feed the little ones until they can fly, which takes about 30 days after hatching. Then the birds head north from mid-July through late-October before departing in the fall for their wintering grounds in the Bahamas.

Because they need such a specific habitat to thrive, piping plovers can be an indicator species for the health of beaches and dunes. If few birds attempt to nest in an area, that could indicate a dramatic change in the habitat that people aren’t aware of, yet. And those changes could affect other wildlife, including other shorebirds and possibly sea turtles.

It’s just another reason to protect the coastal habitats.

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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