The Great Lakes piping plover is a small, sandy colored shore-bird resembling a killdeer that nests on the beaches in Northern Michigan. These birds spend the winter on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from Virginia to Texas and some as far south as Mexico and the Bahamas, and every spring they return to their nesting grounds throughout the Great Lakes region. Historically, breeding populations upwards of 800 pairs nested throughout the Great Lakes, but only 17 pairs were recorded in 1986 when the species was listed as Endangered, and a Federal Recovery Program was put in place. These critically endangered birds make shallow nests on the beach, which are lined with pebbles and driftwood. Both parents work together to care for the eggs and chicks. The eggs take 28 days to hatch, and the chicks cannot fly or escape predators until they are about 30 days old. During this critical period, plover parents have been known to sometimes abandon their nests when their habitat is disturbed. Residential development, disturbance by humans or domestic dogs, predation, or extreme weather can all cause plovers to be too hurt or frightened to care for their eggs.
Luckily, several conservation organizations have teamed up to save the piping plover. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan DNR, and the University of Minnesota work to survey and record nesting activities throughout the spring and summer seasons. Devoted wildlife biologists, students, and volunteers watch and record plover behavior. Each bird has leg bands that help identify individuals in the field so when eggs or chicks are in danger, swift action can be taken.
A small, cottage-like building located at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, MI houses a state-of-the-art incubation and hand-rearing center specially designed for the needs of these little shore birds. Lead by the Detroit Zoo, dedicated staff from AZA accredited zoos from around the country come to Michigan to take shifts hand-raising piping plovers. Binder Park Zoo participates in this program each year, sending experienced staff to help to ensure the survival of orphaned plover chicks.
Specialized incubators keep the abandoned eggs warm until they are ready to hatch. Once hatched, it takes only a couple of hours for the little birds to start running around, pecking at anything that moves. This is how they learn to eat -- by experimenting with their beaks and watching their older siblings. They begin their lives indoors, but start spending time outside by the shore of Douglas Lake fairly quickly. From the safety of their outdoor pen they learn to hunt wild insects, and become accustomed to the sights and sounds of nature. When the chicks reach approximately 4 weeks of age, they are ready to be released back into the wild where they will hopefully contribute to the survival of their species.
Since the beginning of this recovery program, the piping plover population has grown to a record 76 pairs in 2017. There is still a long way to go before they can be removed from the Endangered Species List, but with the combined efforts of many passionate people, they are well on their way. Everyone can make difference for piping plovers and other animals that live in the beautiful habitats surrounding the Great Lakes. You can help by following posted signage and keeping pets on a leash when enjoying the beach. If you notice trash, pick it up and throw it away; we can all help keep our beaches clean and safe for the people and animals that call them home.
Species Survival Plans
Learn more about how we are participating in saving and maintaining rare animal species.