Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)

Photograph of the Piling Plover


Texas Status
U.S. Status
Threatened, Listed 1/10/1986
The piping plover is a small shore bird, about 7 1/4 inches long with a 15 inch wingspan. Distinguishing characteristics include sandy-colored feathers with grayish-brown crowns and backs, white foreheads, and dark bands across their crowns. Dark, but incomplete rings encircle their necks. These little birds have yellow-orange legs, black bands across their foreheads from eye to eye, and black rings around the base of their necks. They are small, stocky, sandy-colored birds that resemble sandpipers, with short, stubby bills.
Life History
Piping plovers reach sexual maturity at one year, and mate from late March through April. Males compete against each other for females' attention. They perform elaborate flights, and then scrape nests in the sand, tossing shells and small stones and twigs into them with their beaks. To create a nest, they scrape a shallow depression in the sand about 1 by 2.5 inches (2.5 by 6 cm). After their nests are built, they stand beside them with their wings partially spread and tails fanned. The males repeat this behavior until a female indicates interest. Once he has her attention, he begins a high-stepping "dance," continuing the courtship ritual. Females will lay about four gray to pale sand-colored eggs with a few dark spots. After an incubation period of 25 days, the young hatch within four to eight hours of each other, and fledge 30 to 35 days later. Although both sexes share responsibility for incubating the eggs, females commonly leave the young when the hatchlings are 14 to 20 days old. Males often remain with them until they can fly.

The chicks can move freely from their nests within hours of drying off. 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. Gulls, crows, raccoons, foxes and skunks are threats to the eggs and falcons may prey on the adult birds. The young plovers and adult plovers generally return to the same nesting area year after year. Plovers often run short distances, pausing to stare at the ground with a slightly tilted head, before picking a food item from the sand. When not feeding, plovers rest and preen.

There are just over 5,000 known pairs of breeding piping plovers. Texas is the wintering home for 35 percent of the known population of piping plovers. They begin arriving in late July or early August, and will remain for up to nine months. The piping plover's diet includes marine worms, beetles, spiders, crustaceans, mollusks and other small marine animals. Their life span is less than five years, but on occasion, up to 14 years.
These shorebirds live on sandy beaches and lakeshores.
Distribution of the Piping Plover (Charadrius
 melodus)Piping plovers migrate through the Great Lakes along the river systems through the Bahamas and West Indies. They are currently found along the Atlantic Coast from Canada to North Carolina and along the shorelines of Lakes Michigan and Superior. Gulf Coast beaches from Florida to Mexico, and Atlantic coast beaches from Florida to North Carolina provide winter homes for plovers.
Threats and Reasons for Decline
Habitat alteration and destruction are the primary causes for the decline of the Piping Plover. Loss of sandy beaches and lakeshores due to recreational, residential, and commercial development has reduced available habitat on the Great Lakes, Atlantic Coast, and the Gulf of Mexico. Reservoir construction, channel excavation, and modification of river flows have eliminated sandbar nesting habitat along hundreds of miles of the Missouri and Platte Rivers. Winter habitats along the Gulf coast are threatened by industrial and urban expansion and maintenance activities for commercial waterways. Pollution from spills of petrochemical products and other hazardous materials is also a concern.

On the breeding grounds, reproductive success can be curtailed by human disturbance. Vehicular and foot traffic destroys eggs and chicks. The presence of people on beaches and sandbar islands inhibits incubation and other breeding behavior. Changes in land use such as agricultural development, urbanization, and use of beaches has brought an increase in the number of unleashed pets and other predators such as gulls, skunks, and foxes.

Increased recreational use of Gulf beaches may also threaten the quality of wintering sites. Beach traffic, including vehicles and ATV's, as well as the activities of unleashed dogs, can disturb birds and degrade habitat. Beach raking, a practice associated with high recreational use, removes driftwood, seaweed, and other debris used by roosting plovers, and may disrupt nutrient cycles and remove prey organisms from foraging areas where plovers forage on the beach.

In 2001, the total population of Piping Plovers in North America was estimated to be 5,945 breeding adults. The Texas Gulf Coast had the highest wintering population, with about 1,042 individuals detected. This represents about 44% of birds detected on the wintering grounds during the 2001 International Piping Plover Census. Most of the plovers that winter on the Texas coast are found in the lower Laguna Madre, where tidal flats are extensive and productive. It is up to Texans to ensure that the wintering habitat so vital to the survival of this species is protected.
Ongoing Recovery
State, federal, and private organizations are collaborating to monitor Piping Plover populations and assess current and potential habitat on breeding and wintering grounds. Research concerning reproductive success, food habits, habitat selection, and limiting factors is underway. The results of these studies will help biologists develop management plans designed to benefit Piping Plovers. Protective measures, such as signs or fences, are being implemented to reduce human disturbance to breeding birds. Vegetation management, predator control, pollution abatement, and habitat creation/restoration are management strategies being used to benefit Piping Plover populations. Biologists continue to assess habitat availability and quality throughout the plover's range in Texas, and identify essential habitat for management and protection. Finally, public information campaigns concerning Piping Plover conservation are a vital part of the recovery process.

Critical habitat was designated for wintering Piping Plovers in July of 2001. This designation identifies areas that are important to the plovers on their wintering grounds, and provides the public and resource agencies with information that can be used to minimize impacts to these areas.
How You Can Help
Whether you enjoy fishing, boating, swimming, or viewing wildlife, please remember that your actions, especially when multiplied by thousands of other recreational users, can have an immense impact on the bays and estuaries of the Texas Coast. Responsible recreational use should include proper disposal of trash and other potential pollutants, respect for private property rights, preventing harm to plants and wildlife, and generally keeping human impacts to a minimum. Minimize driving on the beach and keep pets on a leash. Extensive driving on tidal flats on the bayside of barrier islands should also be minimized, as significant rutting can alter the habitat required by these birds. Avoid disturbance to foraging shorebirds to the greatest extent possible.

You can be involved in the conservation of Texas' nongame wildlife resources by supporting the Special Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Fund. Special nongame stamps are available at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) field offices, most state parks, and the License Branch of TPWD headquarters in Austin. Conservation organizations in Texas also welcome your participation and support.