Birds in Delaware
The Piping Plover
Learn about this endangered species
The piping plover is a small, stocky, sandy-colored bird resembling a sandpiper. The adult has yellow-orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and a black ring around the base of its neck. Like other plovers, it runs in short starts and stops. When still, the piping plover blends into the pale background of open, sandy habitat on outer beaches where it feeds and nests. The bird's name derives from its call notes, plaintive bell-like whistles that are often heard before the birds are seen.
Distribution and Abundance Along the Atlantic Coast
The piping plover breeds on coastal beaches from Newfoundland and southeastern Quebec to North Carolina. These birds winter primarily on the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida, although some migrate to the Bahamas and West Indies.
Piping plovers were common along the Atlantic Coast during much of the 19th century, but nearly disappeared due to excessive hunting for the millinery trade. Following passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, numbers recovered to a 20th century peak which occurred during the 1940s. The current population decline is attributed to increased development and recreational use of beaches since the end of World War II. The most recent surveys (2012) place the Atlantic population at 1,898 nesting pairs.
Breeding and Feeding Habits
Piping plovers return to their breeding grounds in late March or early April. Following establishment of nesting territories and courtship rituals, the pair forms a depression in the sand somewhere on the high beach close to the dunes. The nest is sometimes lined with small stones or fragments of shell. The four eggs hatch in about 25 days, and the downy young are soon able to follow their parents in foraging for the marine worms, crustaceans, and insects that they pluck from the sand. Both the eggs and young are so well camouflaged that they are apt to go undetected unless stepped on.
When predators or intruders come close, the young squat motionless on the sand while the parents attempt to attract the attention of the intruders to themselves, often by feigning a broken wing. Surviving young fledge and are flying in about 30 days. However, storm tides, predators, or intruding humans sometimes disrupt nests before the eggs hatch. When this hapens, the plovers often re-nest in the vicinity and young hatched form these late nesting efforts may not be flying until late August. Plovers often gather in groups on undisturbed beaches prior to their southward migration. By mid-September, both adult and young plovers will have departed for their wintering areas.
Several factors are contributing to the decline of the piping plover along the Atlantic Coast.
- Commercial, residential, and recreational development have decreased the amount of coastal habitat available for piping plovers to nest and feed.
- Human disturbance often curtails breeding success. Foot and vehicular traffic may crush nests or young. Excessive disturbance may cause the parents to desert the nest, exposing eggs or chicks to the summer sun and predators. Interruption of feeding may stress juvenile birds during critical periods of their development.
- Pets, especially dogs, may harass the birds.
- Developments near beaches provide food that attracts increased numbers of predators such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Cats are also predators of plover eggs and chicks.
- Stormtides may inundate nests.
Endangered Species Protection
The piping plover became a protected species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on January 10, 1986. Along the Atlantic Coast it is designated as threatened, which means that the population would continue to decline if not protected. The ESA provides penalties for taking, harassing or harming the piping plover and affords some protection to its habitat.
Things You Can Do To Help Protect the Piping Plover:
- Respect all areas fenced or posted for protection of wildlife.
- Do not approach or linger near piping plovers or their nests.
- Keep your pets on leashes.
- Don't leave or bury trash or food scraps on beaches. Garbage attracts predators which may prey upon piping plover chicks or eggs.
Portions of the above article were taken from the brochure, "You Can Help Protect The Piping Plover," prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 5, January, 1994.