Plover Facts

A piping plover

Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

The plover (Charadrius spp, Pluvialis spp., and Thinornis spp.) is a group of wading birds that includes about 40 species found near bodies of water throughout the globe. Most plovers practice a hunting dance on beaches and sandy strands, a distinctive series of runs, pauses, pecks, and shuffles that the plover uses to startle its tiny prey into moving and making itself visible. This collection of plover facts will give you an idea of the variety of sizes, locations, and behaviors that are found on planet Earth.

Key Takeaways: Plovers

  • Scientific Name: Charadrius spp., Pluvialis spp., Thinornis spp
  • Common Names: Dotterels, plovers
  • Basic Animal Group: Bird
  • Size: 6–12 inches (length), 14–32 inches (wingspan)
  • Weight: 1.2–13 ounces
  • Lifespan: 10–32 years, generation length 5–6 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Throughout the world, mostly coastal or inland water ways
  • Population: In the millions
  • Conservation Status: Critically Endangered, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, most are Least Concern

Description 

Plovers (Charadrius spp, Pluvialis spp., and Thinornis spp.) are smallish birds with short bills and long legs that are found throughout the world. They range in length between six and 12 inches, and they vocalize using a wide variety of sweet trills and cheeps.

Habitat and Distribution 

Plovers predominantly but not exclusively prefer to reside most of the year in watery habitats, coastlines, estuaries, ponds, and inland lakes. They are found in arctic, near arctic, temperate, subtropical and tropical zones throughout the world. During the breeding season, which mostly takes place in the spring and summer of the Northern Hemisphere, they reside between the northern temperate regions to as far north as the Arctic Circle. Winters are spent further south.

Diet and Behavior

For the most part, plovers are carnivorous, eating insects, flies, and beetles while inland, and marine worms and crustaceans while on the shores. If necessary, plovers can also consume seeds and plant stems.

Plovers have a wide variety of vocalizations, each specific to the species. Nearly all of them practice the typical plover hunting dance, running a few steps, then pausing, and then they peck at the ground when they find something edible. In coastal environments, they may hold one foot forward and shuffle it back and forth rapidly, a behavior that is thought to startle small creatures into moving.

Reproduction and Offspring 

Many plovers practice a courtship ritual, whereby the male swoops high into the air, then swoops down to approach a female, puffing out his chest. They are commonly monogamous through the breeding season and some for several years in a row. The female lays between 1–5 speckled eggs in a small scape (scraped-out indentation in the ground), generally not far from the water but spaced away from other birds of the same species. The parents share incubation duties, which last about a month, and, depending on the length of their breeding period, some plovers may brood more than once in a season. In some species, once the birds have hatched, the female leaves them with their father. The new birds can walk within a few hours of hatching and can fend for themselves right away, joining their first migration within two to three weeks.  

Conservation Status and Threats

Most plovers are classified "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), although there are some exceptions. Non-migrating birds are the ones that are most endangered by man's activities, such as dredging, inappropriate water and beach management, development, and tourism, and by predation by cats and dogs. Climate change is another threat, which impacts coastal areas and can damage nests by flooding during high tides, and by beach erosion from storms. 

Types of Plovers

There are about 40 species of plovers in the world, which vary in size, color, and to a degree behavior, particularly in regards to migration patterns. The following is a small selection of plover species, along with pictures and a description of their distinctive patterns and behaviors.

New Zealand Dotterel

New Zealand Dotterel - Charadrius obscurus
New Zealand dotterel - Charadrius obscurus. Chris Gin / Wikipedia.

The New Zealand dotterel (Charadrius obscurus) is the largest member of the Charadrius genus. It has a brown upper body, and a belly that is off-white in color during the summer and autumn and rusty-red in color during the winter and spring. Unlike most plovers, this dotterel does not migrate to breed, but rather is found year-round on or near the coast around much of New Zealand's North Island, primarily on the east coast between North Cape and East Cape. There are fewer than 2,000 New Zealand dotterels in the world and the IUCN lists them as critically endangered.

Piping Plover

Piping plover - Charadrius melodus
Piping plover - Charadrius melodus. Johann Schumacher / Getty Images.

Piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) are small migratory birds that inhabit inland and coastal waterways of North America. In the summers they are pale brown above and lighter below with a white rump; they have a black band across the forehead and an orange bill with a black tip. Their legs are also orange.

Piping plovers live in two distinct geographic regions in North America. The eastern population (C. melodus melodus) occupies the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. The mid-west population occupies a patch of the northern Great Plains (C. m. circumcinctus). Both populations spend three to four months (April–July) on their breeding grounds in the Great Lakes or Atlantic coast and then migrate south for the winter months along the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas to Florida and much of the Gulf of Mexico coastline. The piping plover is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated plover - Charadrius semipalmatus
Semipalmated plover - Charadrius semipalmatus. Grambo Photography / Getty Images.

The semipalmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) is a sparrow-sized shorebird with a single breast band of dark feathers. "Semipalmated" refers to partial webbing between the bird's toes. Semipalmated plovers have a white forehead, a white collar around their neck, and a brown upper body. The plover's breeding grounds are in northern Canada and throughout Alaska. The species migrates southward to sites on the Pacific coast of California, Mexico, and Central America, as well as along the Atlantic coast from Virginia and West Virginia south into the Gulf of Mexico and Central America.

Greater Sand Plover

Greater sand plover - Charadrius leschenaultii
Greater sand plover - Charadrius leschenaultii. M Schaef / Getty Images.

The greater sand plover (Charadrius leschenaultii) is a migratory plover that is difficult to distinguish from others. Its non-breeding plumage is mottled warm brown on top with buff or reddish-brown underparts. They have a dark partial breast band, and a mainly brown face with a slight pale eyebrow stripe. During the breeding season, they have a chestnut breast band, a white face and forehead with a black bill, and a white eye stripe.

This plover breeds from about March–June in desert and semi-desert areas of Turkey and central Asia, and lives the rest of the year on the coasts of Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Ringed plover - Charadrius hiaticula
Ringed plover - Charadrius hiaticula. Mark Hamblin / Getty Images.

The ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula) is a small bird with grey brown back and wings, and a distinctive black chest band that stands out against its white breast and chin. The species occurs over a truly vast range. It spends its breeding season in the grasslands and coastal regions of Africa, Europe, Central Asia, and North America, then migrates to the coral reefs and estuaries of Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and Australia.

Malaysian Plover

Malaysian Plover - Charadrius peronii
Malaysian plover - Charadrius peronii. Lip Kee Yap / Wikipedia.

The Malaysian plover (Charadrius peronii) is a small non-migrating member of the plover genus. Males have a thin black band around the neck, while the female has a thin brown band with pale legs. The Malay plover resides in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, and Indonesia. It is found in quiet sandy bays, coral sand beaches, open dunes, and artificial sand-fills, where it lives in pairs, generally not mixing with other wading birds. It is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN.

Kittlitz's Plover

Kittlitz's plover - Charadrius pecuarius
Kittlitz's plover - Charadrius pecuarius. Jeremy Woodhouse / Getty Images.

The Kittlitz’s plover (Charadrius pecuarius) is common shorebird throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, the Nile Delta and Madagascar. Both sexes have a sooty brown upper body, with pale yellow underparts and belly. Its beak is black and it has black legs that sometimes appear greenish or brownish. A non-migrating bird, Kittlitz's plover inhabits inland and coastal habitats such as sand dunes, mudflats, scrub lands, and sparse grasslands.

Wilson's Plover

Wilson's plovers - Charadrius wilsonia
Wilson's plovers - Charadrius wilsonia. Dick Daniels / Getty Images.

Wilson's plovers (Charadrius wilsonia) are medium-sized plovers notable for their large robust black bill and dark brown breast band. They are short-distance migrators who live year-round on the coastlines of North, Central, and South America, and prefer open beaches, tidal flats, sandy islands, very open areas such as white sand or shell beaches, estuaries, tidal mudflats, and islands. The northernmost breeders withdraw to the Florida or Mexico coasts in the winter.

Killdeer

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus
Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus. Glenn Bartley / Getty Images.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) is a medium-sized plover native to Near Arctic and Neotropical regions. They have a dark double breast band, a grayish-brown upper body and a white belly. The bands on the bird's face give it an appearance as if it is wearing a bandit's mask. Many people have been fooled by the bird's "broken-wing" act, in which it flutters along the ground in a show of injury, luring intruders away from its nest.

Killdeer inhabit savannas, sandbars, mudflats and fields along the coastline of the Gulf of Alaska and extending southward and eastward from the Pacific to Atlantic coasts. Killdeers are migratory in the near-arctic regions, but may be a permanent resident in the southern United States.

Hooded Plover

Hooded plover - Thinornis rubricollis
Hooded plover - Thinornis rubricollis. Auscape UIG / Getty Images.

Hooded plovers (Thinornis rubricollis), named for their black heads and faces and red ringed eyes, are not migrating birds, but instead are native to Australia. Hooded plovers live on sandy beaches, especially in areas where there is an abundance of seaweed that washes ashore and where the beach is rimmed by sand dunes. There are an estimated 7,000 hooded plovers left throughout their range, and the species is classified by the IUCN as Vulnerable due to its small, declining population. 

Grey Plover

Grey plover - Pluvialis squatarola
Grey plover - Pluvialis squatarola. Tim Zurowski / Getty Images.

During the breeding season, the grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola) has a black face and neck, a white cap that stretches down the back of its neck, a speckled body, a white rump, and a black-barred tail. During the non-breeding months, grey plovers are primarily speckled grey on their back, wings, and face with lighter speckles on their belly.

Fully migratory, the Gray Plover breeds from late May to June throughout northwestern Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. It leaves its breeding grounds and spends the rest of the year in British Columbia, the United States, and Eurasia.

African Three-Banded Plover

Three-banded plover - Charadrius tricollaris
Three-banded plover - Charadrius tricollaris. Arno Meintjes / Getty Images.

The non-migrating three-banded plover (Charadrius tricollaris) is a small dark plover with a red eye ring, a white forehead, pale upper parts, and a red bill with a black tip. It inhabits Madagascar and eastern and southern Africa and likes clear, firm, sand, mud, or gravel shores for nesting, foraging, and roosting. Although it does not migrate, flocks may move in response to rainfall changes.

American Golden Plover

American golden plover - Pluvialis dominica
American golden plover - Pluvialis dominica. Richard Packwood / Getty Images.

The American golden plover (Pluvialis dominica) is a striking plover with a dark black and gold speckled upper body and a gray and white underside. They have a distinct white neck stripe that encircles the crown of the head and ends on the upper breast. American golden plovers have a black face and a black cap. Most of the year they spend in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, but in June they migrate to Hudson Bay, northern Alaska and Baffin Island, their summer breeding grounds, and return in the fall. 

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