Piping plovers are in trouble, but there’s some good news

In Massachusetts, breeding pairs have increased 500 percent since the mid-1980's, but the threatened, tiny shore birds still have a long way to go.
A piping plover walks along L Street Beach in South Boston. The bird is small, with white and grey plummage.
A piping plover walks along L Street Beach in South Boston. Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Piping plovers are showing signs of recovery from major population losses in the state of Massachusetts. They’re listed as threatened in Massachusetts, due to habitat loss from increasing human impacts. According to Mass Audubon, they’ve identified roughly 1,145 breeding pairs nesting in the state this year. When the organization first started to monitor and protect the species in 1986, there were less than 200 breeding pairs in the Bay State. That’s a 500 percent increase in three decades.

[Related: Remembering Monty and Rose, the Chicago shorebirds that became the face of a movement.]

“While Piping Plovers remain a federally threatened species, this season’s data shows that these iconic birds are making real progress toward recovery in Massachusetts,” Mass Audubon officials wrote in a statement. “Massachusetts Piping Plover populations have recovered at a faster rate than those of most other states along the Atlantic Seaboard. As a result, approximately 50% of Piping Plovers worldwide now nest in Massachusetts. That makes coastal conservation even more important in our state—we’re responsible for safeguarding a huge portion of this threatened species’ worldwide population.”

Piping plovers are small migratory shorebirds that nest in sand and gravel beaches and mudflats across North America. There are three main populations of the endangered birds. One lives along the shores of the Great Lakes, one in the lakes and rivers of the Northern Great Plains, and another along the Atlantic coast. These roughly six to seven inch tall birds eat marine mollusks, beetles, worms, fly larvae, crustaceans, and other small marine animals. Piping plovers have a tendency to run for a short distance, stop, and then tilt forward to pull an insect or worm up from the sand. Raccoons, skunks, and foxes are their primary natural predators. 

Their main threat is habitat loss. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, human development on beaches has reduced the amount of suitable areas for the birds to spend the winter months. Disturbance by humans and domestic animals like cats and dogs can also force migrating and wintering birds to expend unnecessary energy, which can lead breeding plovers to abandon their nests and young.

They have been listed as endangered or threatened since 1985 and piping plovers living in other states are also seeing some success and cautious optimism.  

In Maine, breeding pairs increased for the sixth consecutive year. Maine Audubon saw 157 breeding pairs in 2023, with some new nesting areas. However, the chick survival rate was the lowest since 2007.

[Related: Endangered sea turtles build hundreds of nests on the Outer Banks.]

“When monitoring an endangered species population, it is always good to proceed with caution. Despite an increase in our breeding pairs, the low fledge rate we saw this summer could be a cause for concern,” Maine Audubon wrote in a press release. “Piping Plovers migrate as far south as Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean for the winter, then have to make the trek all the way back up to Maine for the breeding season. A lot of variables are at play that are in nature’s hands during these long migrations.”

In the Midwest, 80 unique breeding pairs were counted across all five Great Lakes with a total of 85 nests. There are eight more pairs than 2022 and and the most since the species was first added to the federal Endangered Species List. Scientists with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa in High Island, Michigan have been monitoring the island’s plovers as they nest and fledge for two decades. 

“This is the best year that we’ve had for monitoring as far as the total number of adults observed and the number of nests and chicks produced,” Bill Parsons, a scientist in the tribe’s natural resources department, told MLive in August. “We’ve definitely, over that 20 years, seen that the population is slowly, incrementally successful, but we’re nowhere near the target for rehabilitation of the population.”

Some general ways to help protect piping plovers include reporting nest locations to state or federal wildlife officials, keeping dogs on a leash during walks to protect nests, and leaving any driftwood or algae found on beaches for the birds.