The presence of the piping plover is one indicator of a healthy beach. Because these small shorebirds require a pristine environment for successful nesting, their presence indicates an unspoiled beach and minimal human intrusion. But as beaches have been used increasingly for human activities, the piping plover has been less successful in its nesting efforts, and the population has declined. By the mid-1980s, Rhode Island's population, reflecting the regional trend, had dropped so precipitously that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) included the bird on the Endangered Species List as federally threatened. To protect fragile nesting areas, FWS began roping off upper dune areas of popular Moonstone Beach during the summer season. Although controversial, this move helped stabilize the beach's plover population, then estimated at only two pairs.
Piping plovers breed on sparsely vegetated outer beaches, scraping out a shallow nest in the sand for their eggs. Both parents share incubation duties for the four speckled eggs the female lays. Unlike many birds, piping plovers do not feed their chicks. Within hours of hatching, the young leave the nest to follow their parents in search of food-running along the shoreline, foraging for insects and other marine invertebrates.
It takes about 28 days for the eggs to hatch and another month for the chicks to fledge. During this time, the birds are extremely vulnerable. The eggs and flightless chicks are exposed to predation, especially when incubating adults are flushed from the nest by intruders. Also, the sandy-colored camouflage of adults, chicks, and eggs makes them susceptible to inadvertent destruction by humans. Chicks, the size of cotton balls, need to feed continuously in order to grow. But frequent disturbances, such as foot traffic, send them scuttling from intertidal feeding areas to the protection of the dunes, and may disrupt and disorient them to such a degree that they weaken and die.
Habitat protection and management efforts have helped boost the piping plover population, both in Rhode Island and along the Atlantic Coast. Undeveloped beaches, including Napatree Point, Ninigret Conservation Area, and Goosewing Beach, provide safe habitat for these threatened birds, which numbered 71 nesting pairs in 2003.
Doing your part
- Nesting areas are fenced off and marked with signs. When visiting the beach, respect these protection devices and do not disturb the birds or their nests.
- Pets on the beach are a special danger to plovers. Please leave them at home during plover season, March through September.
- Trash and food left behind on the beach can draw predators, which can eat plover eggs and chicks. Please properly dispose of all food or trash from your day at the beach.
This article first appeared in A Guide to Rhode Island's Natural Places, produced by Rhode Island Sea Grant.
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