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Piping Plover

Piping plover walking through vegetation on a beach
Photo by Barbara Saunders

Scientific Name: Charadrius melodus

New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Threatened


This pale shorebird with orange legs is the color of dry beach sand. It weighs 1.5 to 2.25 ounces and is 5.5 inches long. In spring and summer, it sports a single black neck band and a narrow black band across its forehead. In flight, the rump is white. The bill is yellowish with a black tip. The sexes appear similar in both size and plumage. The call is a melodious, organ-like, two- to four-note whistle. Piping plovers are seen individually or in small flocks.

Life History

The piping plover is the first of the shorebirds to arrive on the breeding grounds, starting from early to mid-March. Nests, which are shallow scrapes, are made during courtship and are sometimes lined with pebbles and/or shells. They are usually placed well above the high tide mark on open, generally grassless sand beaches or dredge spoil areas.

During May and June, one egg is laid every other day until the average clutch of 4 eggs is complete. If the first nesting attempt is unsuccessful, a second or third clutch may be laid, often containing only 3 eggs. The piping plover often nests with a colony of least terns. Incubation by both sexes begins with the laying of the fourth egg and takes 25-31 days. The young are precocial (born at an advanced state) and leave the nest shortly after hatching and fledge in about 28-35 days. By early September, all but a few stragglers have departed for their wintering areas.

Piping plover chick on the beach
Piping plover chick. Photo by Barbara Saunders

Food is obtained by foraging on beaches, dunes and in tidal wrack. Data on the breeding behavior of piping plovers shows that some adults return to the same nesting area annually and may retain the same mate as well. One recaptured individual on Long Island was 14 years of age.

Piping plover diet consists principally of:

  • marine worms
  • insect larvae
  • beetles
  • crustaceans
  • mollusks
  • other small marine animals and their eggs

Distribution and Habitat

Piping plovers breed on dry sandy beaches or in areas that have been filled with dredged sand, often near dunes in areas with little or no beach grass. They occur along the Atlantic Coast from southwestern Newfoundland and southeastern Quebec south to North Carolina, and on inland beaches from eastern Alberta and Nebraska to Lake Ontario. Three populations currently exist: one along the East Coast, another on the upper Great Lakes, and a third on the major river systems and wetlands of the northern Great Plains.

Within New York, this species breeds on Long Island's sandy beaches from Queens to the Hamptons, in the eastern bays and in the harbors of northern Suffolk County.

map showing the breeding range of the piping plover.
Piping plover range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A pair of piping plovers successfully nested on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in 2015. This represents the first nesting in New York State away from the marine coastline in 30 years. In total, five Piping plovers were observed on these shores during summer 2015. Two nesting attempts occurred in 2016 in the same location.

Piping plovers spend winters along the coast from Texas to North Carolina, and infrequently as far south as the Bahamas and Greater Antilles.


This species was driven to near extinction around the turn of the century by extensive hunting for meat and sport. Protection since 1918 by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act allowed piping plovers to make a recovery by the mid-1920s. The population peaked in the 1940s, but declined once again due to development and recreation following World War II. Continued human pressures such as coastal development, recreational activities, and disturbance by off-road vehicles have reduced the available suitable breeding habitat for these birds. No population increases were recorded from the 1970s to the 1980s. However, recent surveys have estimated the Atlantic Coast population slightly higher at approximately 800 breeding pairs, about 200 of which nest in New York. Throughout their range, wherever the piping plover isn't listed as endangered, it is threatened.

In addition to New York, piping plover are listed as endangered in:

  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Maryland
  • Indiana
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Wisconsin
  • Iowa
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania

Management and Research Needs

Survey groups from the DEC, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, and a network of concerned volunteers annually census the breeding colonies on Long Island. With the cooperation of private and public landowners, fencing and signs prohibiting entry have been erected to protect existing colonies from disturbance. Tern/plover stewards actively patrol and monitor nesting sites to increase nesting success and alert the public to the vulnerability of these species to human disturbance.

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