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Species Name:    Charadrius melodus
Common Name:              (Piping Plover)



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

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

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).



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.

Benefit in the IRL:

Economic Importance:


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