The piping plover is a small shorebird that breeds in North America in only three geographic regions: the Atlantic Coast, the Northern Great Plains and the Great Lakes. Its decline in population over the years has many researchers and scientists concerned, including those in Indiana.
The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small shorebird that once thrived along the beaches of the Atlantic coast, the Great Lakes, and the river shores of the Great Plains. Harvesting for the millinery business reduced their numbers drastically in the early nineteen hundreds. More recently, loss of habitat has kept this bird on the ropes. Today, the piping plover is threatened or endangered throughout its range.
The piping plover’s name is derived from its plaintive bell-like whistles which are often heard before the bird is even visible. It lives the majority of its life on open sandy beaches or high rocky shores away from the water and other disturbances.
Mating pairs are formed in late March with the male digging out several nests along the high shore. The nests, known as scrapes, are small depressions dug out by the male kicking the sand away. The female will then choose the best scrape and decorate it with shells and debris as camouflage. Three to four eggs are laid with both sexes taking turns incubating the eggs until they hatch - within 30 days. Together, the mates will feed their hatchlings until the young piping plovers are able to fly off and take care of themselves (another 30 days).
In recent decades, the piping plover populations have drastically declined, especially in the Great Lakes region where important breeding habitats have been replaced by shoreline development and recreation. Organizations such as the US Fish & Wildlife, Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy are working hard to protect the piping plover and its habitat in states where this small shorebird is found.
The Atlantic and Great Plains populations are small, around a thousand pairs each, but the Great Lakes population is tiny - recent surveys estimate only fifty pairs remain. This is cause for concern. This Great Lakes population forms the genetic bridge between the eastern and western populations. Efforts are under way to bolster the Great Lakes population by protecting key nesting sites in Michigan and Wisconsin. In Indiana, newly restored wetlands are serving as important stop-over sites for the piping plover as it makes its way from the Gulf coast to the Great Lakes - a project possible by the Conservancy, Department of Natural Resources and other similar-minded organizations.
Officials aim to increase the piping plover from fifty pairs to one hundred fifty by 2020. With the help of conservationists throughout the Midwest, we may once again here the clear piping call of the piping plover.