December 7, 2021

Piping Plovers in Canada: The Slow Recovery of an Endangered Shorebird

The Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus, is a small North American shorebird only about 18 cm. (7 ¼ inches) long. The bird has a sand coloured back, which blends in well with the beaches it lives on, a white breast, orange legs, and a short black and orange bill. During the breeding season, it has a black band running across the top of its chest.

Piping Plovers breed and nest on ocean beaches above the high water mark, on lake shores in the Great Lakes region, and on lake shores and salt flats in the prairies. Birds migrate to southern Atlantic coasts, Gulf coasts and Caribbean islands in the winter. The species is listed as threatened or endangered throughout its range. In Canada, it was listed as endangered in 1985.

Threats to Piping Plovers

Charadrius melodus numbers have declined dramatically in the last fifty years. Many threats to the species have been caused directly and indirectly by humans:

  • Habitat destruction—people have raised lake water levels by damming rivers, physically altered beaches, and built on shorelines, destroying nesting sites. Damage to beaches in the bird’s wintering grounds is also an issue.
  • Damage to nests—vehicles driven on beaches, roaming dogs and cats, herds of farm animals, and beachgoers carelessly crushing eggs all destroy nests.
  • Nest disturbance—heavy human use of a beach where Piping Plovers nest may leave the nest intact but frighten adult birds away.
  • Predators—scraps of food and edible garbage left on beaches attract wild animals such as raccoons and foxes to nesting sites. The increased food supply provided by humans also supports increased numbers of these predators.
  • Climate change—a rise in sea level, or a drop in lake water level due to drought, destroys potential Piping Plover nesting sites. Severe storms can also temporarily flood parts of the beach where plovers nest.

Conservation Efforts for Piping Plovers

Every five years, an international census is done to determine how the Piping Plover is doing. Censuses were carried out in 1991, 1996, 2001, and 2006—the results indicate an increase of at least 8% since 1991. Meanwhile multipronged conservation efforts to aid in the species’ recovery have been ongoing, especially in its breeding range:

  • Public education—volunteers, environmental organizations, community groups, universities, government, and businesses have worked to educate the public, particularly those who use the shorelines, about how to avoid disturbing Piping Plovers.
  • Identification of nesting sites—pinpointing beaches and flats where Piping Plovers nest allows for protection of nests and chicks during the breeding season.
  • Nest protection—signs identifying nesting sites, fencing to exclude predators, beach closures, and legislation allowing for stiff penalties all protect adults and nests from disturbance and destruction.
  • Salvage and rescue—relocation of threatened eggs and rescue of birds in peril, including captive rearing programs can help maintain or increase numbers in specific situations.

Piping Plover Recovery in Canada

All of Canada’s Atlantic Provinces have guardianship programs to help the birds, and populations are slowly increasing. While the population has dropped in central Canada since 1991, recent census data indicate a possible recent increase there as well. We can’t relax, however: the continued survival of Charadrius melodus will depend on our continued efforts to educate people about the bird and protect its habitat.