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Piping Plover
Charadrius melodus
– Family
Authors: Haig, Susan M.
Revisors: Elliott-Smith, Elise, and Susan M. Haig

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Food Habits

Adult Piping Plover feeding; Massachusetts, July
Piping Plover chick, feeding; Massachusetts, June


Main Foods Taken

Freshwater and marine invertebrates washed up on shore, terrestrial, and benthic invertebrates.

Microhabitat For Foraging

Varies greatly among habitats and stage of the annual cycle. Birds primarily fed within 15 m of the shoreline on Big Quill Lake, SK, but also sometimes fed near nest (Whyte 1985). While percentage of feeding near the shoreline varies by sex, age, and stage of breeding, birds feed chiefly within 5 m of the water’s edge; only at sunset do parents and broods return to feed on higher ground. Great Lakes birds also forage mostly at the shoreline, in the “splash zone” (Brown 1987), and in open beach habitat, where they glean invertebrates from vegetation and rocks (C. Haffner and J. Stucker, pers. comm.). Back beach ponds, detritus piles, and open beach habitat also commonly used. In North Dakota, birds spend 42% of their time at the waterline and 45% foraging in upland gravel areas (Beckerman 1988). On ocean beaches wrackline is preferred foraging habitat for chicks followed by vegetated dunes (Elias et al. 2000). Adults and chicks also forage in the intertidal zone, however, flightless chicks can be thrown by rough surf (Hecht pers. comm.). Bays and pools are favored by chicks when available (Loegering and Fraser 1995, Goldin and Regosin 1998, Elias et al. 2000). Adults and chicks in New Jersey exhibited flexibility in their choice of foraging habitat but generally chose areas with few people (Burger 1994)

In winter, foraging habitat fairly consistent among numerous Gulf and Atlantic coast sites. On Dauphin Island, AL: protected mudflats or sandflats exposed at low tide (Johnson and Baldassarre 1988); at Texas sites: primarily bayshore sand and algal flats (Zonick 2001). Comparison among 36 Atlantic winter sites (222 birds observed once each) and 75 Gulf sites (1,508 birds observed once each) indicates foraging activity most often associated with mudflats (25.6% of observations), sandflats (25.1%), and sandy mudflats (31.8%; Nicholls 1989).

Food Capture And Consumption

Along shoreline with minimal wave action, a series of short rapid runs interspersed with rapid pecks (Cairns 1977). Pecks and runs occur successively and so quickly that birds appear to be probing randomly rather than directing pecks at specific food items. In other instances (e.g., after a wave rolls up the beach and leaves a glassy film), Piping Plovers extend one foot slightly forward and vibrate it against water-saturated sand. This can occur in successive steps before an actual peck is made, perhaps bringing undersand invertebrates to the surface (Cairns 1977). Such foot trembling commonly observed among adults and juveniles throughout the annual cycle (SMH). Birds also forage in drier areas adjacent to nests. Frequently leave nests to peck at insects in the sand or chase spiders and grasshoppers (SMH). Pecking rate reduced during incubation and brood rearing (Staine and Burger 1994).

Forage alone or in small groups (but not cooperatively) during all hours of the day throughout the annual cycle. Breeding Manitoba adults alternate between 30- and 120-min bouts of incubation and foraging throughout 24 hour day. Similarly, parents alternate brooding chicks, guarding while chicks forage, and foraging. This results in reduced diurnal and nocturnal foraging during incubation and brood rearing phases (Staine and Burger 1994). At coastal New Jersey sites, birds spend about 70% of their time feeding during both day and night but peck rate lower at night (Staine and Burger 1994). Both adults and chicks spend more time foraging in habitats with few people than more populated areas (Burger 1994). Atlantic Coast birds frequently forage during low or falling tide (Cairns 1977, Staine and Burger 1994). Birds on fall migration in Manitoba were seen foraging throughout the day and night (SMH). During winter in Alabama, 76% of the day was spent foraging (Johnson and Baldassarre 1988); 74% in Texas (Drake 1999). More time spent foraging during autumn and midwinter than in spring (Johnson and Baldassarre 1988, Drake 1999).


Major Food Items

Threatened/endangered status prohibits collecting; sensitivity to human disturbance makes sampling food on territories difficult and possibly unwise if birds are present. Nevertheless, Nova Scotia breeders fed on marine worms (2.5–7.5 cm long) at rate of 58 worms/h; also smaller worms and tiny crustaceans (Cairns 1977). At breeding areas on Big Quill Lake, SK, samples from feeding sites at and near the shoreline revealed the following: Coleoptera: Carabidae (26.9% of total number collected) and Dytiscidae (15.3%); Hemiptera: Corixidae (19.2%) and Saldidae (2.3%); and Diptera: Chironomidae (9.5%) and Ephidridae (2.6%; Whyte 1985). Food on territories at Chain of Lakes, ND, similar to but greater biomass than potential Great Lakes sites: Ephydridae (73%), Chironomidae (13%), and Dolechopodidae (9%) vs. Chironomidae (72%), Dolichopodidae (5%), Muscidae (3%), and Ephydridae (3%; Nordstrom 1990, Nordstrom and Ryan 1996). Invertebrates identified from gizzard and stomach contents of Great Lakes breeders include Hymenoptera (32%), Coleoptera (29%), Diptera (28%), Hemiptera and Homoptera (10%), and Ephemeroptera, Trichoptera, Pseuoscopiones and Arachnida (4%) (Cuthbert et al 1999, F. Cuthbert and B. Scholtens At ocean and lagoon beaches of Magdalen Islands, QC, invertebrates found in fecal samples were: Gastropoda, Amphipoda, Coleoptera (Cicindelidae, Carabidae, Staphylinidae, Curculionidae, and unidentified), Diptera, and Hymenoptera (Shaffer and Laporte 1994).

Stomach contents of four wintering Piping Plovers from Alabama included marine worms, insects (fly larvae and beetles), crustaceans, molluscs, and other small marine animals (and their eggs; Bent 1929). Fecal samples (n = 24) collected from birds wintering in the Gulf of Mexico indicated species from the following phyla: Mollusca, Annelida, Arthropoda, Crustacea, and Nematoda (details in Nicholls 1989). Although soft body type impedes detection in fecal samples (Shaffer and Laporte 1994), behavioral observations indicated polychaetes (phyla Annelida) were the primary food of birds feeding in ocean beach habitat and bay shore sandflats of Texas; amphipods were also important prey in ocean beach habitat, whereas at bayshore algal flats, birds fed predominantly on surface insects (Zonick 2000). Data from New Jersey suggest if polychaetes are present, birds may selectively feed on them as evidenced by greater polychaete abundance in foraging areas compared to random locations (Staine and Burger 1994). In general, birds appear to consume the same types of invertebrates in the same proportion to what is available at their feeding location (Shaffer and Laporte 1994, Zonick 2000); an exception is when foraging on Texas beaches, birds rarely feed on bivalves despite their abundance (Zonick 2000). Captive reared plovers readily consume a diet of live invertebrates (e.g., crickets, tubifex worms, meal worms, mayflies); growth and development are similar to wild birds (Powell et al. 1997, J. Stucker pers. comm.).

Nutrition And Energetics

No information.

Metabolism And Temperature Regulation

See Behavior: self-maintenance.

Drinking, Pellet-Casting, And Defecation

Drinking occurs during repeated bouts of dipping the bill in water and tilting the head back. Often performed in conjunction with bathing (see Behavior: self maintenance). No observations of pellets cast or caching.