Celebrating a Positive Year for Piping Plovers

September 30, 2021

ROYAL OAK, Mich., 

As the weather cools in Michigan and we bid summer farewell, a very special community of shorebirds takes wing on their annual southward migration. Piping plovers are small, endangered birds who are commonly found in the northern Great Lakes region and return here each summer to breed.

Breeding pairs camouflage their small clutches of eggs in the pebbles along the beach. Development of shorelines, human encroachment, dogs off leashes and high-water levels all reduce the odds that their eggs will hatch. Only one out of four chicks typically fledge and for this species to survive, piping plovers require a significant conservation effort.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) leads a piping plover recovery program with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to help bolster the population of wild piping plovers. Eggs that are abandoned or found in compromised locations are collected, incubated and hatched on the DZS campus and chicks are later released back to various Michigan shorelines. This program has been very successful, showing an increase from 17 breeding females in 1986 to 74 breeding females in 2021.

“Last year (2020) was a super successful year for our team, but if we have large numbers of abandoned eggs that come to our facility that means it is a bad year in the field,” said Bonnie Van Dam, associate bird curator for the DZS. “This year it is completely opposite, which is what we want.”

This season, the piping plover captive rearing program successfully returned 13 chicks, a low number compared to 2020 when 39 were released. This decrease shows high hopes for the stability of the piping plover population and that rescue efforts are paying off.

Since the launch of the DZS-led piping plover salvage-rearing program in 2001, 312 birds have been successfully reared and released. In 2018, the USFWS recognized the DZS for its leadership in the recovery of this endangered species.