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Adult C. melodus near nesting site on a beach. Photo by Richard Kuzminski, Wood-Ridge, NJ.

C. melodus chick on beach. Photo by Richard Kuzminski, Wood-Ridge, NJ.

Species Name: Charadrius melodus Ord, 1824
Common Name: Piping Plover
Synonymy: None

    Kingdom Phylum/Division Class: Order: Family: Genus:
    Animalia Chordata Aves Charadriiformes Charadriidae Charadrius

    Species Description

    The piping plover, Charadrius melodus, inhabits sandy beaches, mudflats and sandbars along rivers and lakes. It is sparrow sized and reaches approximately 7 - 8 inches in height. Body color is a pale or sandy white. It has a black breast band which can be either complete or incomplete, with a yellow bill and legs. Breeding birds show a prominent black collar and a black band that runs across the forehead.

    Other Taxonomic Groupings

    Current investigation does not support subspecies designation of  inland (C. melodus melodus) vs. coastal (C. melodus circumcinctus) populations; however, it has been previously suggested that based on distribution and breast-band patterns, subspecies designation is warranted.

    Potentially Misidentified Species

    The piping plover can be mistaken for the semipalmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), Wilson's plover (Charadrius wilsonia) and the snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus), all of which are somewhat darker in coloration. Unlike the piping plover, Wilson's plovers lack the transverse black line across its forehead. The semipalmated plover is distinguished by its darker rump; and the snowy plover is distinguished by it smaller stature, black breast patches, and dark legs (Farrand 1988; Amos and Amos 1997).


    Regional Occurrence

    Breeds from Newfoundland to North Carolina along the east coast. Inland, it breeds from central Canada through the Great Lakes region. This species overwinters in the southern United States from North Carolina south to Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

    IRL Distribution

    C. melodus is thought to be fairly common throughout the western shores of the Indian River Lagoon, especially around Port Canaveral and Merritt Island. It is a common migrant and winter visitor to the Lagoon area and is found almost exclusively on ocean beaches, sandpits, and mudflats. It is unknown inland of the lagoon system. C. melodus arrives for the winter as early as late July and early August. It becomes fairly common by September. In most years, C. melodus departs the area between March and mid-April. (Cruickshank 1980).


    Age, Size, Lifespan

    Charadrius melodus is a relatively small plover, adult weight being 43 - 63 g (Wilcox 1959; Haig 1992). It attains a height of 7 - 8 inches.


    Total number of breeding pairs in U. S. and Canada in 1991 was estimated to be 2334. The 1996 census estimated the total number of breeding pairs to be 2796.


    Several hours after hatching, piping plover chicks are capable of walking several meters from the nest and peck at the ground but probably do not obtain food at this time (Cairns 1982). Piping plovers will often walk and run as opposed to flying, so as to be less conspicuous. Piping plovers are also able to "jump" with the aid of their wings. Male piping plovers perform elaborate aerial flights over breeding territories as courtship displays (Haig 1992).


    Mating systems in Charadrius melodus are considered monogamous, but because nests are often destroyed at the beginning of the breeding season, new mates can be chosen at this time. One brood per year is characteristic of C. melodus, although the female is capable of laying several clutches if a nest is destroyed (Haig 1992).

    Most birds will remain paired throughout the breeding season but change mates between years (Haig and Oring 1988). A Minnesota study showed that 84% of breeding Piping Plovers returned to approximately the same nesting location, but that only 47% showed mate retention from the previous year (Wiens and Cuthbert 1988). In Manitoba, 70 % returned to the same site the following year and 30 of 37 birds changed mates (Haig and Oring 1988).


    Clutch size is generally 4 eggs per nest. Egg color is light, blending in well with the color of the sandy nest site.  Eggs are incubated continuously, with parents trading places every 30 - 45 minutes (Haig 1992). Chicks are precocial and often leave the nest within hours of hatching (Lopez and West 1994). Chicks are tended until fledging which can occur 21 - 35 days later depending on geographic location (Prindville et al 1988).


    No information is available at this time


    Trophic Mode

    Freshwater and marine invertebrates including worms, crustaceans and mollusks as well as terrestrial insects are considered to be preferred food items for Piping Plovers (Haig 1992). It has been suggested that before piping plover restoration attempts are made to former habitats that invertebrate populations be assessed in both currently occupied as well as proposed restoration sites (Nordstrom and Ryan 1996).


    Predator exclosure cages (Rimmer and Deblinger 1990) are now in wide use in order to protect the endangered Piping Plover from predation and other disturbances. Nest abandonment in exclosure cages without a cover was significantly less than in cages with cover (Vaske et al 1994). Vertebrate predators of Piping Plovers adults, chicks and eggs have been known for some time. It was also known that ghost crabs prey on young Piping Plover chicks, particularly at night. In addition, a study on Virginia Barrier Islands in 1994, revealed that ghost crabs also prey on unhatched Piping Plover eggs (Watts and Bradshaw 1995).


    Breeding Piping Plovers have three separate populations occurring in: 1) the northern Great Plains; 2) the western Great Lakes; and 3) the Atlantic Coast (Newfoundland to South Carolina) (Haig and Oring 1985; Haig 1992; Dyer 1993) A 1991 international census showed that most wintering piping plovers occurred in Texas and along the Gulf Coast where ocean beach was the preferred habitat followed by sand or algal flats in protected bays. Populations of breeding Piping Plovers were greatest in the northern Great Plains (63.2%) and the Atlantic Coast (36 %) while only 39 pairs remained on the Great Lakes (Haig and Pilsner 1993). Atlantic and Great Lake Piping Plovers primarily used sandy beaches as habitat. Northern Great Plains plovers used shorelines around alkaline lakes as well as reservoir beaches, river islands and adjacent sand pits and beaches on large lakes (Haig and Pilsner 1993).

    A study on Assateague Island National Seashore, MD showed that Piping Plover chicks reared on bay side beaches and island interiors had better survival and foraging rates and spent more time foraging than chicks reared on ocean beaches. Chicks from ocean sites eventually migrated to island interiors and bay side beaches along unvegetated paths created by winter storms. The preservation of these paths is necessary to provide access to high quality habitat to insure population stability (Loegering and Fraser 1995).

    Activity Time

    Nocturnal foraging behavior of the Piping Plover was studied along the New Jersey coast. During pre-nesting and fledgling stages of the breeding cycle, the greatest number of adults fed in the intertidal zone; during late ebb and early flood tides. Time spent on vigilant behavior (staying alert) as opposed to foraging for food was greater in individuals occupied with incubation or brood rearing. Daytime pecking rates were higher than nocturnal pecking rates (Staine and Burger 1994).

    Wintering birds along the Alabama coast spent the majority of time foraging as opposed to resting and preening. Less than 5% of time was spent on territorial, agonistic, vigilant and locomoting behaviors combined (Johnson and Baldassarre 1988).

    Associated Species

    Piping Plovers nest in proximity to American Avocets in wetland beaches of the northern Great Plains (Mayer and Ryan 1991) . Along the New Jersey coast, Piping Plovers nesting near Least Terns were more reproductively successful and derived more protection from predators (Burger 1987).


    Special Status

    Endangered or Threatened 

    Notes on Special Status

    In 1986, Charadrius melodus was listed as endangered in the Great Lakes region, and as threatened throughout the rest of its U.S. range by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (U.S. Government 1985; Sidle et al 1991; Haig 1992; Dyer 1993). In Canada, C. melodus was also listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (Haig 1995).

    Historically, breeding pairs of Piping Plover in the Great Lakes region were estimated at over 800. Dramatic decline in breeding populations in the Great Lakes region was attributed to habitat loss in the 1940's and 50's. When listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986, only 17 breeding pairs remained (Powell and Cuthbert 1992).  The 1996 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Census reported 32 breeding pairs of piping plovers in the Great Lakes Region, with all but one pair counted in Michigan. Census results from the Great Plains Region showed 1392 breeding pairs, while the Atlantic Coast Region showed 1372 breeding pairs.

    Piping Plover population declines have been attributed to human disturbance, habitat loss and predation (Patterson et al 1991; Vaske et al 1994). Management strategies targeted at beachgoers and off-road vehicles include fencing of appropriate habitat, beach closures, pet restrictions and public education (Melvin et al 1991).

    Notes on Endemism

    Endemic to North America.


    Amos WH, Amos SH. 1997. National Audubon Society Field Guides: Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 550 pp.

    Burger J. 1987. Physical and social determinants of nest-site selection in piping plover in New Jersey. Condor 89: 811-818.

    Cairns WE. 1982. Biology and behavior of breeding piping plovers. Wilson Bull 94: 531-545.

    Cruickshank AD. 1980. The birds of Brevard County. Orlando, FL: Florida Press. 202 pp.

    Dyer RW. 1993. The piping plover. Conservation needs in the eastern United States. Underwat Nat 21: 19-23.

    Farrand J. 1988. Western Birds. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

    Haig SM. 1992. Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus). No. 2 In: The birds of North America. Poole A, Stettenheim P, Gill F, Eds. Acad Nat Sci: Philadelphia, PA and Amer Ornithol Union: Washington, DC.

    Haig SM, Oring LW. 1988. Distribution and dispersal in the piping plover. Auk 105: 630-638.

    Haig SM, Plissner JH. 1993. Distribution and abundance of piping plovers: results and implications of the 1991 international census. Condor 95: 145-156.

    Johnson CM, Baldassarre GA. 1988. Aspects of the wintering ecology of piping plovers in coastal Alabama. Wilson Bull 100: 214-223.

    Loegering JP, Fraser JD. 1995. Factors affecting piping plover chick survival in different brood-rearing habitats. J Wildl Manage 59: 646-655.

    Lopez JJ, West N. 1994. Management issues concerning the piping plover and off-road vehicles at Cape Cod National Seashore. Coastal Zone Canada Assoc: Dartmouth, NS. 3: 1113-1125.

    Mayer PM, Ryan MR. 1991. Survival rates of artificial piping plover nests in American avocet colonies. Condor 93: 753-755.

    Melvin SM, Griffin CR, Macivor LH. 1991. Recovery strategies for piping plovers in managed coastal landscapes. Coast Manage 19: 21-34.

    Nordstrom LH, Ryan MR. 1996. Invertebrate abundance at occupied and potential piping plover nesting beaches: Great Plains alkali wetlands vs. the Great Lakes. Wetlands 16: 429-435.

    Patterson ME, Fraser JD, Roggenbuck JW. 1991. Factors affecting piping plover productivity on Assateague Island. J Wildl Manage 55: 525-531.

    Powell AN, Cuthbert FJ. 1992. Habitat and reproductive success of piping plovers nesting on Great Lakes islands. Wilson Bull 104: 155-161.

    Prindiville Gaines EM, Ryan MR. 1988. Piping plover habitat use and reproductive success in North Dakota. J Wildl Manage 52: 266-273.

    Rimmer DW, Deblinger RD. 1990. Use of predator exclosures to protect piping plover nests. J Field Ornithol 61: 217-223.

    Sidle JG, Mayne K, McPhillips EN. 1991. Protecting the piping plover under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. Environ Manage 15: 349-356.

    Staine KJ, Burger J. 1994. Nocturnal foraging behavior of breeding piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) in New Jersey. Auk 111: 579-587.

    Vaske JJ, Rimmer DW, Deblinger RD. 1994. The impact of different predator exclosures on piping plover nest abandonment (el impacto de diferentes barreras para detener depredadores en el abandono de nidos por individuos de Charadrius melodus). J Field Ornithol 65: 201-209.

    Watts BD, Bradshaw DS. 1995. Ghost crab preys on piping plover eggs. Wilson Bull 107: 767-768.

    Wiens TP, Cuthbert FJ. 1988. Nest-site tenacity and mate retention of the piping plover. Wilson Bull 100: 545-553.

    Wilcox LR. 1959. A twenty year banding study of the piping plover. Auk 76: 129-152.

Report by: J. Dineen, Smithsonian Marine Station
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Page last updated: July 25, 2001

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