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Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)



Piping plover (Charadrius melodus), a bird listed as Endangered in Wisconsin, prefers large isolated cobble beaches on the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior. The recommended avoidance period is from late May to mid-July.

State status

Status and Natural Heritage Inventory documented occurrences in Wisconsin

The table below provides information about the protected status - both state and federal - and the rank (S and G Ranks) for Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus). See the Working List Key for more information about abbreviations.

Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for this species in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database. The map is provided as a general reference of where occurrences of this species meet NHI data standards and is not meant as a comprehensive map of all observations.

Note: Species recently added to the NHI Working List may temporarily have blank occurrence maps.

Documented locations of Charadrius melodus in the Natural Heritage Inventory Database as of July 2015.

Summary Information
State StatusEND
Federal Status in WisconsinLE
State RankS1B
Global RankG3
Tracked by NHIY

Species guidance

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) has very few known occurrences in the state and is of the highest priority for conservation; we encourage you to consult with your District Ecologist or an NHI Zoologist for specific recommendations for your site.

Identification: Piping plovers are tiny shorebirds that inhabit sandy beaches where vegetation is sparse. Plovers have light sandy-gray colored back feathers, white underparts with a white wing stripe, a pale-orange, black-tipped bill and pale-orange legs. Both male and female piping plovers look alike. During the breeding season, they have a distinctive black stripe on their forehead and lower neck. In the winter, they lose these black stripes and their bill and legs become dark.

Although plovers are small and hard to see because they blend well with their surroundings, they make their presence known by their clear, soft song. Piping plovers earned both their common and scientific names from their melodious "peep, peep, peep, peep-lo" song and their two-note alarm call, "peep-lo."

Habitat: Piping plovers inhabit shorelines of lakes, rivers and oceans.

State Distribution: Historically, piping plovers nested in Wisconsin, although exact numbers are unknown. From the late 1800s to early 1900s, wanton shooting of plovers for sport and the millinery trade contributed to serious population declines throughout North America. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to hunt piping plovers and their populations began to recover.

Unfortunately, plovers' problems did not end there. With increasing human use of beaches where plovers nest, populations again began to decline. By 1948, only one pair of plovers was known to nest in Wisconsin (in Door County). Since then Piping plovers have been absent as nesting birds from the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan. Still, Bbetween one to four individual migrants have been sighted there each spring. Two to three pairs occurred on Lake Superior's Long Island and Chequamegon Point from 1974 to 1983. They formerly nested on Barker's Island and Wisconsin Point on Lake Superior. Although three pairs of plovers nested in Ashland County in 1978, but only one pair successfully reared young. Of two pairs seen there in 1979 and 1980, only one produced chicks each year. In 1986, only just one adult returned to a traditional nesting territory in Ashland County.

Global Distribution: Piping plovers breed along the western Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to North Carolina, around the Great Lakes and on the northern Great Plains. During breeding season they prefer open sandy beaches along the Great Lakes. In Wisconsin, the only breeding pairs in recent years have occurred along the shores of Lake Superior. Plovers winter along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, the southern Atlantic states, the Bahamas and the West Indies. They migrate alone or in small groups of five to six. frequenting inland lake areas and ponds along the way.

In 1985, only 476 pairs nested along the entire Atlantic Coast of the United States. The largest number of piping plovers (fewer than 1500 pairs) exists in the Great Plains, but these populations are endangered by dam projects and other water development plans. The 500 pairs of piping plovers once known to nest in the Great Lakes region dwindled to only 18 by 1986. The species no longer breeds in southern Ontario, where 100 pairs used to nest, or in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and now, Wisconsin. Populations in Michigan and Minnesota also have declined substantially.

Rationale for Species Listing and Threats: Habitat loss and disturbance of birds and their nests caused by human activities are the main causes of piping plover declines throughout the bird's range. Vehicles, pets and beach development have been large contributors to losses in breeding habitat and reproduction on remaining habitats nationwide. "Beaches everywhere have been appropriated for, commercial and recreational development. Cottages and hot dog stands occupy the plover's former nesting sites, beach buggies crush its eggs and young, while even raking the beach for trash scoops up the eggs," (Graham, 1986). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports an increasing incidence of plover nests being raided by unleashed and feral dogs and cats, as well as skunks and raccoons that are attracted to beaches by human development. Channelization and damming of rivers destroys sandbars where plovers nest, and rising water levels in the Great Lakes have eroded previous nesting beaches.

Diet: The plovers' diet includes grasshoppers, spiders, chironomids, fly larvae, beetles, crustaceans, mollusks and other invertebrates.

Life and Natural History: Wisconsin's piping plovers spend the winter along beaches in the southern U.S. By mid to late April, they fly north to nest on our state's beaches and sandpits. Plovers are very site tenacious and return year after year to the same nesting territory. If humans also return to use the same strip of beach each year, as is often the case, the plovers' nests may be repeatedly destroyed and the birds will continually fail to rear any young.

Males arrive first, establish territories and defend them from other males. When females arrive several weeks later, the males begin their courtship displays. They try to attract a mate by flying in circles and figure-eights, and by as well as dancing with tail and wings spread, while whistling and rapidly drumming their feet.

More than one pair of plovers will nest on the same beach, but pairs generally nest 100 yards or more from each other. Both the female and male make several nest scrapes in the sand. They use of which only one is as a nest, however, lining it lined with pebbles, shells or bits of driftwood and used as a nest.

During mid-May, the female lays one cream-colored egg with black spots every other day until there are four in the nest. The eggs are well-camouflaged and are easily stepped on by unwary beachcombers. If plovers lose their eggs during the first half of the nesting season, they may relay. But if their eggs are lost late in the season, they do not nest again that year.

Both female and male incubate the eggs, which hatch after 24-31 days. The chicks are precocial; they spending only a few hours in the nest, waiting for their feathers to dry, and then are ready to run. They leave the nest under the watchful eyes of the adults. Adults don't feed their young directly, but guide the chicks to good food sources, where the young feed themselves.

The downy young plovers have protective coloration similar to the adults. If an intruder appears, the adults call out to the chicks, who respond immediately by freezing, lying flat and motionless on the ground. The chicks are almost impossible to see when they are still. The parents also may act as if they have a broken wing to draw the attention of an intruder away from the chicks. After 21-35 days, the young are ready to fly. Adult plovers leave Wisconsin in mid to late summer; juveniles often depart later.

Only one in five piping plovers reaches the age of five years. Some may live longer, however, as evidenced by one bird that was banded, released, then recaptured 14 years later.

Additional Information: In 1973, the piping plover was placed on the National Audubon Society's "Blue List," a list of endangered bird species. Plovers were placed on Wisconsin's Endangered Species List in 1979 and on the Federal Endangered Species List in 1985.

Management Guidelines: The DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources (BER) conducts annual surveys of piping plover nesting habitat and records the number of individuals, nests and young. Recently, no plovers have nested in Wisconsin. The BER plans to manage and protect nesting habitat and, in an attempt to increase the number of plovers in the state, may place piping plover eggs in nests of related shorebirds that will serve as foster parents. Predator enclosures built around nests may also increase nesting success.

Since one key to protecting piping plovers is to keep people away from nesting areas, the cooperation of shoreline owners and beach visitors is essential. Dogs, people and off-road vehicles (ORV's) not only scare the birds off their nests, which can expose eggs to boiling hot sun, but can accidentally step on or run over eggs and chicks. Such actions could wipe out Wisconsin's piping plovers in one afternoon. To ensure that piping plovers will continue to nest in Wisconsin and elsewhere, suitable nesting habitat must be protected. Each of us can assist the future of Wisconsin's piping plovers by avoiding areas where plovers are known to occur during the May 15 - July 15 nesting season.



Piping Plover

The Piping Plover is extremely rare in Wisconsin where it nests only on undeveloped beaches along Lake Superior.

Photo © Jack Bartholmai.

Piping Plover

Piping plover.

Photo © Gene Nieminen.

Piping Plover

Photo © Jack Bartholmai.

Piping Plover

Photo © Jack Bartholmai.

Piping Plover

Photo © Jack Bartholmai.

Piping Plover

Photo © Jack Bartholmai.

Wildlife Action Plan

Note: The information presented here comes from the 2005 Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan. The 2015 revision has been submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approval. Our website content will be updated when the plan has been approved.

Native community (habitat) associations

The table below lists the natural communities that are associated with Piping Plover. Only natural communities for which Piping Plover is "significantly" (score=3) or "moderately" (score=2) associated are shown. Please see the Wildlife Action Plan to learn how this information was developed.

Natural community score
Great Lakes Beach 3
Great Lakes Dune 3

Ecological landscape associations

The table below lists the ecological landscape association scores for Piping Plover. The scores correspond to the map (3=High, 2=Moderate, 1=Low, 0=None). For more information, please see the Wildlife Action Plan.

This map shows the probability of Piping Plover occurring in each of Wisconsin's Ecological Landscapes.  Actual scores can be found in the table to the left.

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Landscape-Community combinations of highest ecological priority*

Ecological priorities are the combinations of natural communities and ecological landscapes that provide Wisconsin's best opportunities to conserve important habitats for a given Species of Greatest Conservation Need. The 10 highest scoring combinations are considered ecological priorities and are listed below. More than 10 combinations are listed if multiple combinations tied for 10th place. For more information, please see the Wildlife Action Plan.

* Ecological priority score is a relative measure that is not meant for comparison between species. This score does not consider socio-economical factors that may dictate protection and/or management priorities differently than those determined solely by ecological analysis. Further, a low ecological priority score does not imply that management or preservation should not occur on a site if there are important reasons for doing so locally.

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Conservation actions

  • Band all plover young that are produced at nest sites within 7-10 days of hatching.
  • Identify and coordinate group of volunteer citizen "plover wardens" to monitor human disturbance at breeding locations.
  • Install predator exclosures over nests to deter potential mammalian predation.
  • Monitor and protect federally designated "critical habitat."
  • Post "Piping Plover Nesting Area - Please Keep Off" signs at known breeding sites and place signs approximately 300 meters from nest site.
  • Survey potential breeding habitat to locate nesting pairs.
  • Work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to develop long-range plans for the deposition of "clean" dredge spoil sediments and the creation of appropriate dredge spoil islands in locations likely to attract breeding P

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Threats and issues

  • The federal and state endangered Piping Plover uses Wisconsin freshwater wetland habitats during its life cycle. These habitats are subject to natural and human disturbance, which may subject the species to changes in habitat availability. On the Great Lakes, the loss of sandy beaches and other littoral habitats to recreational/commercial development and dune stabilization have greatly contributed to the decline of the species. Historical Piping Plover nesting sites in the Great Lakes have been destroyed by high water levels, flooding, or eroding beaches. In southeastern Wisconsin (along Lake Michigan), rirapping of extensive beach habitats and development have eliminated former historic nesting sites.
  • Piping Plover winter habitats are threatened by industrial or urban expansion, and site quality may be threatened by increasing human use of beaches for recreation. Oil spills are another potential threat during winter as is the stabilization (promoting vegetative growth) of barrier islands and sand flats.

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Last revised: Wednesday, May 18, 2016