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piping plover

Charadrius melodus

What do they look like?

The piping plover is a small Nearctic shorebird approximately 17 centimeters (7 inches) long with a wingspread of about 38 cm (15 in. Wilcox (1959) found that breeding females were slightly heavier than males (55.6 grams vs. 54.9 g), had slightly shorter tail lengths (50.5 millimeters vs. 51.3 mm), but had similar wing lengths. Breeding birds have white underparts, light beige back and crown, white rump, and black upper tail with a white edge. In flight, each wing shows a single, white wing stripe with black highlights at the wrist joints and along the trailing edges. In winter, the birds lose the black bands, the legs fade from orange to pale yellow, and the bill becomes mostly black. Breeding plumage characteristics are a single black breastband, which is often incomplete, and a black bar across the forehead. The black breastband and brow bar are generally more pronounced in breeding males than females. The legs and bill are orange in summer, with a black tip on the bill.

(Stout 1967)

  • Range mass
    55.6 to 59.4 g
    1.96 to 2.09 oz
  • Average mass
    57 g
    2.01 oz

Where do they live?

Within the U.S the Piping Plover is found along the Atlantic Coast in such states as Florida, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New England, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Outside of the U.S, the Plover can be mainly found along the Atlantic coast of Canada, and in some of the British Caribbean Islands.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Charadrius melodus usually nest above the high tide line on coastal beaches, sand flats at the ends of sandpits and barrier islands, gently sloping fore dunes, blowout areas behind primary dunes, sparsely vegetated dunes, and wash over areas cut into or between dunes. Feeding areas include inter-tidal portions of ocean beaches, wash over areas, mudflats, sand flats, wrack lines, and shorelines of coastal ponds, lagoons or salt marshes. Wintering plovers on the Atlantic Coast are generally found at accreting ends of barrier islands, along sandy peninsulas, and near coastal inlets.

How do they reproduce?

The Piping Plover uses (like most birds) a courtship dance to attract a mate for copulation. Courtship displays are also varied. The most visible display is the courtship flight, in which the male plover loops through the air, constantly peeping, often swooping very close to the ground near the location of the female being courted. Once a male and female are more tightly "pair-bonded," courtship displays may lead to mating. Nest scrapes are dug in the sand within the pair's territory, and these sites are often the focal point of courtship displays. These scrapes are simply shallow depressions in the sand, occasionally lined with bits of seashells. If the female approaches the male while he is digging or sitting in a scrape, he will stand over the scrape and fan out his tail. The female may then squat down under his tail, indicating a possible acceptance of him as a mate. At this point, the male will often initiate a tatoo dance, in which he stands very erect, puffs out his chest, and rapidly and repeatedly beats the ground with his feet. Still dancing, he approaches the female until they are touching, ruffling her feathers with the rythmic pounding of his feet. If the female does not back away, the male will then mount her and copulation occurs.

The eggs are layed within a nest scrape over a period of about a week, approximately one egg every other day, until 4 eggs (occasionally less, rarely more) are produced. Incubation is sporadic until around the time of the third egg, at which point it is more or less constant until hatching occurs. The male and female share the chore of incubation, each remaining on the nest for approximately one-half to one hour while the other is off feeding. Approximately 28 days after incubation commences, the eggs will hatch and the young chicks emerge.

  • Average eggs per season
  • Average time to hatching
    28 days

How long do they live?

How do they behave?

Territorial and agonistic interactions have been observed with other Piping Plovers and similiarized Plover species-Semipalamated and Snowy Plovers (Johnson and Baldassarre 1988, Zonick and Ryan 1993). In Alabama, combined time spent in territorial and agonistic activities largely involved intraspecific interactions (Johnson and Baldassarre 1988). Piping plovers appear to be aggressive and may defend food and mating patches during the winter period (Zonick and Ryan 1993).

How do they communicate with each other?

What do they eat?

Chicks and adults alike feed on a variety of beach-dwelling invertebrates, including insects, small crustaceans mollusks, , marine worms, fly larvae, and beetles. Because of their relatively short beaks, they rely mainly on surface-dwelling organisms or those which live just below the sand surface, for food.

Do they cause problems?

The Piping Plover has no negative effects on humans.

How do they interact with us?

The Piping Plover is an indicator species that allows scientists to get a glimpse of the condition of an ecosystem. The Piping Plover also controls the insect and small crustacean populations on beaches. The major economic benefits stem from this beach cleaning the Piping Plover provides. This in turn allows for humans to frequent coastal areas more frequently with less incident for contact with pests (tourism).

Are they endangered?

Piping plovers are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, and they are considered endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan DNR. There are numerous groups and coalitions trying to protect the Piping Plover around the United States. For more information, see:


Ryan Vinelli (author), Cocoa Beach High School, Penny Mcdonald (editor), Cocoa Beach High School.


Johnson, , Baldassarre. 1988. Aspects of the wintering ecology of piping plovers in coastal Alabama. Wilson Bulletin, 100: 214-233.

Stout, G. 1967. The shorebirds of North America. New York: Viking Press.

Wilcox, .. 1959. A twenty year banding study of the piping plover.

Zonik, .., .. Ryan. 1993. Ecology and conservation of wintering piping plovers and snowy plovers. University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri: Unpublished interim report.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Vinelli, R. 2000. "Charadrius melodus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 24, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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