New York Natural Heritage Program
Piping Plover
Charadrius melodus Ord, 1824

General Description [-]
The Piping Plover is a small plover with orange legs, a white breast, sand-colored upperparts, and a short, stout bill. It is one of several plover species displaying a black neckband during the breeding season.

Identifying Characteristics [-]
The Piping Plover is a small plover weighing 46-64 g (average 55 g). The length averages about 17-18 cm (NGS 1983). Adults in alternate (breeding) plumage have sand-colored upperparts (wings and back), a short stout bill that is orange at the base and black at the tip, and orange legs. They have a dark band across the front of the crown from eye-to-eye and a dark ring around their neck, or collar, that is more pronounced in males. The tail is grey and white at base, darkening towards the end and tipped with white. Nonbreeding birds loose identifying features such as the forehead stripe, neckband, and the bill becomes entirely black. Wintering birds are white underneath with a darker grey back and wings. Immature plumage resembles the adult nonbreeding plumage; juveniles acquire adult plumage the spring after they fledge. The Piping Plover's call has been described as a melodious organ-like two to four note whistle described as "peep-lo" (NYSDEC, Robbins et al. 1983). Nests generally consist of bare scrapes in the sand and are sometimes lined with pebbles or shells (NYSDEC). Eggs are pale buff-colored with splotches of black or dark brown or purple (Cairns 1982). Some clutches have more abundant larger, and darker splotching on the egg's broad end (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004).

Characters Most Useful for Identification [-]
Although no single trait is exclusive to this species, the combination of breeding season characteristics including a small plover with a stout orange bill with a black tip, orange legs, white underparts, pale grey upperparts, black neckband, and white rump that is conspicous in flight, distinguishes this species.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification [-]
Adults during the breeding season are easiest to identify, although it is possible to also distinguish juveniles and wintering adults from other species.

Behavior [-]
Piping Plovers raise one brood per year, although several nesting attempts may be made if previous attempts fail. Pairs are primaily monogamous but serial polygyny and polyandry have been reported (Haig and Oring 1988c, Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004). Piping Plovers frequently nest in the same areas as Least Terns, perhaps capitalizing on the extra protection afforded by the tern's fierce aerial defense of the nesting area and increased vigilance and alarm system. Piping Plovers tend to nest away from other Piping Plovers but don't seem to avoid placing their nests in proximity to terns. One study in New Jersey found average distances of Piping Plover nests were 85 to 99 meters to another Piping Plover nest and 5 to 36 meters to a Least Tern nest (Burger1987). Birds may thermoregulate by standing on driftwood on cold mornings, facing the sun, with their black neckbands exposed. On hot days, they may stand in the shade of a rock or log with their neckbands concealed (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004). They do fly, but primarily walk or run; their sand-colored plumage providing excellent camoflouge. Territories, nests, and nestlings are defended against predators and territories may be defended against another Piping Plover or even a bird of a different species entering their territory (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004). Defensive and aggressive behaviors include chasing, pecking, and biting. Defensive and territorial displays include assuming a display posture, puffing feathers and running long distances, sometimes over 100 meters parellel to another male along territrory boundaries (Cairns 1982). When a predator approaches a nest one or both parents may perform a distraction display by feigning a broken wing and running along the ground with one wing raised and one lowered (Cairns 1982). When both parents are present one may lead the chicks to saftey while the other feigns injury (Cairns 1982).

Diet [-]
Piping Plovers' primary food source is invertebrates including a wide array of terrestrial insects, marine worms and tiny crusteaceans (Cairns 1977). Primary food items in at least some parts of their range include beetles such as Carabids (ground beetles) and Dytiscids (predaceous diving beetles), true bugs such as Corixidae (water boatmen), Diptera (flies) such as Chironomids (midges) and Ephydridae (shore flies), and also hymenopts, molluscs, polychaetes and amphiopods. Invertebrate prey taken varies by the age of the bird, habitat, range and season (Elliott-Smith and Haig 2004).
Piping Plover Images
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The Best Time to See
Migrants may be observed on Long Island in March and late August and breeding individuals may be observed from April through July (Levine 1998). This specieis usually rare on Long Island before mid-March and after September. On very rare occasions individual birds are observed in winter on Long Island.
Present Breeding
The time of year you would expect to find Piping Plover present (blue shading) and breeding (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Wilson's Plover (Charadrius wilsonia)
    The Wilson's Plover has an over-sized, longer and broader bill, grey to pinkish legs and darker upperparts. The Wilson's Plover does not typically occur in New York.
  • Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
    Killdeer appear similar to Piping Plovers but with a darker tawny brown back, thicker neck collar, and a second black band on the chest. They also have a longer bill that is all black.
  • Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)
    The Semipalmated Plover appears similar to the Piping Plover but with much darker upperparts and a thicker black forehead band, lores and neck collar. The Semipalmated Plover passes through New York during migration.