What type of beach goer are you? Do you prefer your own private beach for miles or like to be right next to your neighbor? Depending on your answer, you may be very similar to a Piping Plover! Yes, Piping Plovers are little grey and white birds with an orange beak with a black tip and rock a fantastic black unibrow with a matching collar. Looks don’t matter in this comparison, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. You’ll be surprised by how many similar behaviors we share with this little shorebird.

Adult Piping Plover at Eel Point:
Photo: Libby Buck


When it comes to finding the “one”, everyone has their own type and they have to make a good impression. When it comes to Piping Plovers it’s all about fighting off the other male competition and having an excellent flight display. Males will do a flight display by simultaneously flying in a figure eight, while making a low piping calls to get their potential mates’ attention. If the female decides he’s worthy, he will then proceed to the next phase, the “tattoo” dance, in which he stands very tall, puffs out his chest, and rapidly stomps the ground with his feet.  You know the type; they are found frequently at the Chicken Box in the summer!

Male Piping Plover showing off his “tattoo” dance
Photo: Kim Smith

Nesting Behavior:

Once they setup their nesting territory, the newlyweds move on to find the best location for their new home.  They nest in “scrapes”.  Scrapes are small depressions in the sand that are made by the male. The male will make many scrapes, and the female will sit in each one and decide the which is best one to use as a nest (sound familiar?). Some Piping Plovers prefer a flat open beach while others may decide on a secluded patch of beach grass. The female will then decorate the scrape by using small bits of shell, pebbles, and some even crab legs, for just the right ambiance.

Typical Piping Plover Nest
Photo: Libby Buck

Haven’t we all been there, picking out the perfect spot on the beach with no one around and then someone else decides to setup shop right next to you? Just annoying! Piping Plovers share the same gripe and they prefer to have their own nesting territory with no neighbors. If two pairs decide to nest within the same area, they work out an invisible fence and will chase their competing neighbors out if they cross the line.

Two pairs of Piping Plovers defending their territories
Photo: Libby Buck

Once the Piping Plovers have a successful nest, they will come back to the same beach every year. Due to habitat loss, too many neighbors, or if it’s their first-time nesting, they will venture off to new beaches to try to find the best location. I think we can all relate to trying to find our own nest, where there is peace and quiet and away from everyone. That’s what makes them unpredictable and why new beaches have to be fenced off or closed.

Parental Protection:

Piping plover chick waiting for its siblings to hatch out of the nest.

Once the Piping Plover’s chicks finally hatch, those baby birds hit the ground running within only a couple of hours. The parents instantly have to teach them survival skills and are constantly chasing after their babies in order to protect them from their many threats such as the weather, predators, and human disturbance. These birds aren’t very aggressive by nature, and they teach their children to run and hide away from predators and humans. The chicks have a sand coloration to help camouflage them and hide in holes and beach grass. The chicks are about the size of a cotton ball with toothpicks for legs. A footprint or tire track left on the beach would be a prime hiding place. Much like us, the parents try their very best to protect their children.

Four newly hatched Piping Plover chicks hiding in a hole.
Photo: Libby Buck

Vacation: After having a stressful summer of raising children these birds go on vacation too. The only difference is they only have to wait 35 days for their chicks to fly not 18 years like people do. Before they can “book” their flight, they flock up with other Piping Plovers.  They all build up fat reserves in their bodies, which are needed for fuel to complete their journey to their vacation home. The hot vacation spots for these birds are the Bahamas or further south in the Gulf of Mexico.

Piping Plover Nonbreeding adult/immature
Nonbreeding adults & immatures on a beach in the Bahamas
Photo: Keith M Kemp/Macaulay Library

As you can see, we can relate to this little bird in many ways. To make sure they have a successful nesting season please follow these rules:

•  Pay attention to all signs and string fencing alerting you to nesting birds in the area (there are stiff fines for disturbing these protected animals during nesting season).

•  Stay out of marked nesting sites and give them some space! The sooner they raise their families for the year, the sooner the fencing comes down.

•  Keep all dogs leashed and under control when on the beach, especially when near shorebird nesting areas.

•  Don’t fly kites or drones over nesting sites (they look like predators to bird parents and can provoke attack or abandonment of nests).

•  Please be kind to shorebird monitors and stewards, they want peaceful co-existence between your day at the beach and the birds they protect.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us now!