Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)
The piping plover is very rare in Canada; it has been listed as Endangered since 1985 and is the focus of several recovery programs. Fortunately, these efforts seem to be working as the population of these attractive little shorebirds increased slightly between 1996 and 1999.
The piping plover is a small, plump shorebird that is slightly larger than a house sparrow. It has long yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black tip. Its upperparts are a light, sandy grey, with a small black patch on each shoulder and another across its forehead. Its underparts and rump are plain white, with a white face and a narrow white collar around its neck. In the winter, its bill and legs become darker. Some forms have a black band across the upper breast. In flight, the piping plover shows a white band running along each wing, and a black spot on its tail. It has a clear, distinctive ‘peep-lo’ call. The first note of the call is lower than the second.
The piping plover has experienced widespread range reductions, and now breeds patchily along the Atlantic coast, from southern Newfoundland to North Carolina, as well as throughout the southern prairie provinces of Canada, North Dakota, and Minnesota. It winters on the Atlantic coasts of the United States, as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.
The piping plover is monogamous, with pair bonds sometimes lasting several years. Aerial courtship displays by the male include circular and figure-of-eight flights. On the ground, he whistles, crouches, circles the female, spreads his wings and tail, puffs his feathers, raises his head, stretches his neck, and stamps his feet, performing a ritualized dance to impress a prospective mate.
Pairs often nest at, or near, the same spot every year. Preferred nesting areas are sandy beachfronts, but pebble or gravel beaches are also used. Both sexes construct several nest scrapes, which are usually located among tufts of grass, but only one scrape is used. Scrapes may be camouflaged using stones or bits of wood. Four buffy, dark brown spotted eggs are laid, that are incubated by both sexes for 25 to 31 days. The young are precocial, and are tended by both parents, although the female may desert the brood as early as one week after hatching. Fledging occurs at 20 to 32 days of age.
Piping plovers defend their nests by performing a broken-wing distraction display. Dragging one apparently broken wing, the parent bird moves away from the nest or young, enticing a predator to follow it instead of attacking the chicks. Once the predator has been lured far enough away from the nest, the parent bird takes flight, leaving the surprised hunter hungry.
The piping plover eats mostly crustaceans and insects, but supplements these with mollusks and the eggs of aquatic invertebrates. It feeds by picking food items off the ground, particularly from the compact, wet sand of the shoreline. It also probes its bill into the sand to reach prey below the surface. Unlike many other shorebirds, piping plovers often forage alone or in groups of only a few individuals.
Large-scale losses of habitat from development and recreational activities, and increasing predation by dogs, cats and gulls, have caused a serious decline in piping plover populations. Many nests are destroyed when they are run over by vehicles driving on Atlantic beaches. This species is also seriously threatened in other parts of its range; the total population estimate is less than 4500 individuals, with about 2200 of these in Canada. Through conservation efforts in both the United States and Canada, it is hoped that this charming little bird will continue to nest on our beaches.