Plovers are shore birds in the family Charadriidae, order Charadriiformes. Plovers have short, straight bills, with a small swelling towards the tip. Their wings are pointed at the tips, usually with a white wing-stripe on the underside, and the flight of these birds is fast and direct. Plovers and the closely related sandpipers (family Scolopacidae) are affectionately known as "peeps" by bird watchers, because of the soft, high-pitched vocalizations that these birds make.
Plovers are active feeders, constantly walking and running along the shores, mudflats, prairies, tundra, or fields in search of a meal of small invertebrates. Plovers typically feed by poking their bill into mud for invertebrates, or by picking arthropods from the surface of mud, soil, shore debris, or sometimes foliage.
Plovers nest on the ground in simple open scrapes that blend well with the surroundings and can be very difficult to locate. When a predator or other intruder, such as a human, is close to its nest, a plover will usually display a "broken-wing" charade. This remarkable behavior aims to lure away the potential nest predator, and during this routine the plover often comes dangerously close to the threatening animal. However, the plover is actually very alert and nimble, and stays just beyond reach while tenaciously leading the intruder away. Plover chicks are capable of leaving their nest within hours of their hatching, and they immediately move with their parents and feed themselves.
Plovers are monogamous, which means that each mating season the male and female pairs are faithful to each other, with both parents sharing in the incubation of eggs and care of their young. The only exception is the mountain plover (Eupoda montana) of southwestern North America; this species is polyandrous, meaning that a particular female will mate with one or more males, leaving at least one of them a clutch of eggs to incubate and care for while the female lays another clutch to incubate and care for by herself. This interesting breeding strategy is more common among species of sandpipers.
There are 63 species in the Charadriidae, which are found worldwide with the exception of Antarctica. Most species breed on marine or freshwater shores, but a few species breed in prairies, savannas, or deserts. Plovers that breed in Arctic regions undertake long-distance migrations between their breeding and wintering ranges. For example, the semipalmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) and the black-bellied plover (Pluvialis squatarola) breed in the Arctic of North America, but may winter as far south as Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. Plovers are gregarious during their migrations, appearing in flocks of their own species, and often with other, similar-sized shore birds such as sandpipers. Tropical species of plovers are relatively sedentary, except for those species that breed in deserts; these may be widely nomadic or migratory.
Nine species of plover regularly breed in North America. The black-bellied plover, lesser golden plover (Pluvialis dominica), ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula), and semipalmated plover all breed in the Arctic tundra, and are long-distance migrants. The mountain plover breeds in short-grass prairie and semi-desert of the western United States.
The piping plover (C. melodus), the snowy plover (C. alexandrinus), and Wilson's plover (C. wilsonia) breed on sandy beaches and mudflats in various areas. However, all of these plovers are rare and to various degrees endangered, mostly because of the loss of much of their natural habitat to urbanization and the recreational use of beaches.
The killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) breeds widely in temperate and southern regions of North America. This is the plover most frequently seen by North Americans, because the killdeer is an abundant species that commonly breeds in disturbed environments, usually in proximity to water. The killdeer was directly named after the loud call that it gives when alarmed, especially around the nest. Many species of birds have been named after their distinctive vocalizations, a practice known to etymologists as onomatopoeia.
During their migrations and on their wintering grounds, many species of plovers appear predictably in large flocks in particular places, often in association with large numbers of other shore birds. These particular natural habitats represent critical ecosystems for these species, and must be preserved in their natural condition if these birds are to survive.
Hayman, P., J. Marchant, and T. Prater. Shore Birds: An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World. London: Croom Helm, 1986.
Richards, A. Birds of the Tideline: Shore Birds of the Northern Hemisphere. Limpsfield, England: Dragon's World, 1988.
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Knopf, 2000.