The Piping plover is a rare sand-colored shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and gravel beaches in North America. The adult has yellow-orange-red legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye, and a black stripe running along the breast line. This chest band is usually thicker in males during the breeding season, and it is the only reliable way to tell the sexes apart. This small bird is difficult to see when it is standing still, as it blends well with open, sandy beach habitats. It typically runs in short spurts and stops.
Piping plovers are found on the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. and Canada and on the Great Lakes shores. They migrate from their northern range in the summer to the south in the winter months, migrating to the Gulf of Mexico, the southern Atlantic coast of the United States, and the Caribbean. Their breeding grounds extend from southern Newfoundland south to the northern parts of South Carolina. Piping plovers live on open sandy beaches or rocky shores, often in high, dry sections away from water. They can also be found along lakeshores, rivers, and wetlands.
Piping plovers live the majority of their life on the ocean shores running quickly along the beach looking for food. They forage by day and night, usually by sight, moving across the beaches in short bursts. When not feeding these small shorebirds spend their time away from water where they can rest peacefully blending in with the sand. Piping plovers are usually seen in pairs or in small; however, on the wintering grounds, they may gather in large flocks that contain up to 100 individuals. The common call of Piping plovers is a soft, whistled 'peep peep' usually given when birds are standing and flying. Their frequently heard alarm call is a soft 'pee-werp'. Piping plovers begin migrating north in mid-March. Migration south begins in August for some adults and fledglings, and by mid-September, most Piping plovers usually head south for winter.
Piping plovers are serially monogamous and form pairs that usually last only during one breeding season. These birds arrive at sandy beaches to breed in mid to late April. Males will begin claiming territories and pairing up in late March. When pairs are formed, the male begins digging out several scrapes (nests) along the high shore near the beach-grass line. The males also perform elaborate courtship ceremonies, including stone tossing and courtship flights featuring repeated dives. The male begins a mating ritual of standing upright and "marching" towards the female, puffing himself up and quickly stomping his legs. Females lay 2-4 eggs and incubation of the nest is shared by both the male and the female. Incubation is generally 27 days and eggs usually all hatch on the same day. After the chicks hatch, they are able to feed within hours. The adults' role is then to protect them from the elements by brooding them. They also alert them to any danger. It takes about 30 days before chicks achieve flight capability. They must be able to fly at least 50 yd (46 m) before they can be considered fledglings. Both parents care for the young, however, males often remain with chicks until they are able to fly. Young females usually start breeding at 1 year of age.
The Piping plover is globally threatened and endangered. In the 19th century and early 20th century, these shorebirds were hunted for their feathers, as were many other birds at the time, as decorations for women's hats. These decorations, called plumes, became a symbol of high society, especially those from larger rare birds. This practice led to the Piping plover's initial population decline. The second decline in the Piping plover population and range has been attributed to increased development, shoreline stabilization efforts, habitat loss, and human activity near nesting sites in the decades following World War II. Droughts, oil industry, development, disturbances, and climate change still threaten the Piping plover populations and despite current conservation strategies, this species remains in serious danger.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Piping plover is around 12,000-13,000 individuals which include around 8,100 breeding individuals. Specific populations have been estimated in such areas: 3,320 mature individuals on the Atlantic coast; 4,662 mature individuals on the northern Great Plains and prairies; and 110 mature individuals in the Great Lakes. Overall, currently, Piping plovers are classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List but their numbers today are increasing.