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Piping plover

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small sand-colored, sparrow-sized shorebird that nests and feeds along coastal sand and gravel beaches in North America. The adult has yellow-orange 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. The 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.

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At the turn of the century, every fashionable lady in America wanted a hat decorated with feathers, a bird’s wing, sometimes even an entire preserved bird. Piping plovers were only one of many species overhunted so their plumage could be used in the millinery trade, and their population numbers began suffering severely as a result of the unregulated hunting. The killing of many other shorebirds, gulls, and migrant birds in general led to the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, which forbid citizens to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill” or even attempt to do any of those things to “any migratory bird” (Migratory Bird Treaty, 1918). Overhunting was at an end. Piping plovers began to quickly rebound, but in the 1940s, in the wake of World War II, the oceans were safe from Nazi U-boats; beachfront views were soon desired by the well-to-do, and coastal development along the Atlantic seaboard began to explode. Perhaps Americans thought the little plovers on their swift feet would simply run to another beach to nest, but every beach seemed to have a new human development on it, or else thousands of beachgoers with colorful clothing and curious children who would sooner pick up a discovered plover egg than leave it alone. Piping plovers began to decline again with this degradation and, in many locations, outright loss of habitat. Domestic cats and dogs, pets and strays from the new developments, began wandering the beaches feeding on plover eggs and disturbing the nest sites. Raccoons and skunks were attracted to the food and trash left behind on the beaches by human tourists, and they too preyed on the plover nests. Piping plover nest mortality skyrocketed. With the signing of the Endangered Species Act in the early 1970s, both academia and the public’s focus slowly shifted to species protection and restoration, and the plight of the piping plover was noticed once again. By 1985, a census indicated that the breeding population had dropped to between 933 and 938 breeding pairs. Protection plans were soon put in place.

Contributed by Audrey Coffman

At only about seven inches from beak to tailtip, piping plovers are among the smallest of North America’s shorebirds. Their medium-length, stout bills, orange with black tips as if they have been dipped in ink, are adapted to catching the invertebrates found along the shore—insects and their larvae, small crustaceans and mollusks, and others. Piping plovers are adapted for running, not swimming, as their orange legs, nearly as long as their body is tall, and unwebbed toes reflect. These little birds prefer to nest and forage in sandy coastal areas abutting the ocean, the same places humans go for beach outings. Piping plovers’ simple nests, often called “scrapes,” are nothing more than their colloquial name implies; male piping plovers scrape out a shallow nest in the sand with their feet, occasionally lining it with pebbles and small shells, and the female lays an average of four eggs in it. The eggs are often mottled gray and brown like the sand, serving as camouflage from predators, but also leaving them vulnerable to being stepped on by humans who pass through the area. The eggs hatch some twenty-five days after they are laid, and the chicks are almost immediately able to leave the nest and forage for themselves. It is during the more than three weeks spent as eggs, though, that they are susceptible to predation and nest disturbance. If a predator approaches a piping plover nest, one of the parents may exhibit a “broken-wing display,” drooping one wing by their side and dragging it across the sand to the sound of plaintive distress calls, appearing for all the world like a helpless creature with no means of escape. The parent lures the predator away a suitable distance from the nest before taking to its wings, both of which are still perfectly intact. Even in the animal world one finds parents willing to do anything to protect their offspring. Living along the coast, an ecosystem both fragile and highly sought-after for human recreation, made the piping plover an easy target for decline through overhunting and habitat loss.

Contributed by Audrey Coffman

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