..The Intuitive Times
Connecting With Nature


Piping Plovers: Birds in Peril

by Jackie Waddell

Back | Next | Contents | Home

Each year, dedicated volunteers devote hours of their summer to counting and protecting Prince Edward Island's only endangered species - the Piping Plover. This small, pale shorebird lives, nearly invisible, on sandy beaches between the high tide mark and the dunes. Surely one of the most inhospitable habitats in the region, the beach has been the plovers' home for thousands of years. Perfectly adapted, plovers feed on insects and small crustaceans attracted to the debris on the shore - old seaweeds, dead crabs and fish, and any other organic materials the sea might deposit on the shore. The dune grass provides shelter for small chicks but is rarely used for nesting.

In April the plovers return to PEI from a warm winter on the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, South Carolina or Cuba. Pairs establish a territory in May and the males scrape out small depressions in the sand as a part of an elaborate courtship. The female chooses one scrape (commonly decorated with small shell fragments) and lays the first of four eggs. Every other day a new egg is laid and incubation starts only when the last of them is in the nest. That way, all the chicks develop together and will hatch within hours of one another. The newly hatched chicks dry off and literally take off running. They feed for themselves with both parents watching for danger.

Danger to Piping Plovers comes in many forms. Enemies of adults are storms during migration, pollution of wintering habitat, birds of prey and more direct human interference. Dogs kill adults when they are protecting nests or chicks. Humans disturb nesting areas, putting adults at risk when small energy reserves are depleted to re-nest or protect young.

Predators of eggs and chicks are many - crows and foxes top the list in PEI. Humans are considered a threat by plovers who will leave a nest to lure the predator away. Eggs can overheat or cool quickly, causing death of the embryos. When disturbed off the nest frequently, loss of a nest is more likely. This also increases the chances of predation of the nest as crows frequently find eggs through their systematic search of the beach.

Humans love to recreate on the same beaches plovers need to survive. This is a less obvious form of habitat loss but loss nonetheless. Plovers and humans can share the beach. Island Nature Trust works on PEI to protect plovers by placing signs around nesting areas, education and on-site volunteer monitors. Plovers have much higher productivity rates when protected from disturbance and egg predation.

Young chicks will crouch and "freeze" when threatened. While this protects them from predation, it also stops all feeding. Crouching chicks have less feeding time and on a busy, hot weekend, two days of heavy disturbance can cause death by starvation. This is especially heartbreaking when there is plenty of food for these beautiful young animals. Beach users are encouraged to stay out of signed areas, keep dogs (very threatening to Plovers) on a leash, and to remove all garbage from the beach as this attracts the plover's predators.

In 2001 an International Census counted only 110 Piping Plovers in PEI. While this number is up from 2000, it is only a return to 1991 figures. There are hundreds of kilometres of beautiful beach on PEI. We can share the shore with the small population of plovers, as there is plenty of room for both. If we don't respect the needs of this shorebird, we will have lost another species from an already shaky assemblage of Island wildlife.

You can work to help Piping Plovers return to historical population levels by volunteering for the Guardian Program and respecting plover nesting areas. Contact the Nature Trust at 902-566-9150 or intrust@isn.net for more information on programs.

Jackie Waddell is the Project Coordinator at Island Nature Trust, where she also supervises the Piping Plover Guardian Program. Jackie has a B.Sc. in Biology, with an emphasis in Wildlife Management. Since 1986 Jackie has worked at the Trust on a variety of programs including natural area protection through private landowner stewardship, restoration of natural areas and many educations efforts.


Back | Next | Contents | Home