In Need of Protection: Western Snowy Plovers

Cover photo: © Pacific Southwest Region USFWS, 2009, some rights reserved.

Learn about a small species of threatened shorebird that can be found on the beaches along California’s coast.

Cover photo: © Pacific Southwest Region USFWS, 2009, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Western Snowy Plovers

Wilder Ranch Circle

Wilder Ranch State Park

Western snowy plovers are disappearing in California due to disturbance and habitat loss.

The listing of the western snowy plover as federally Threatened in 1993 has led to very important conservation initiatives. Western snowy plovers are easily disturbed while breeding, so human activity and introduced predators (such as cats and foxes) disrupt their breeding seasons. This, along with the loss of healthy beach habitats, has resulted in the decline in western snowy plover populations. While it is estimated that their populations once numbered in the thousands, approximately 2,000 individuals are estimated to remain on our coasts today.

Today, several initiatives on California’s beaches are actively working to restore their populations. Groups of citizen scientists and biologists actively monitor snowy plover populations.

The restriction of dogs on beaches is another important initiative. Dogs disturb snowy plovers on nests, causing them to expend energy to flee. Even when on leashes, dogs have the capacity to do harm by disturbing the plovers. Because of this, actions are being taken at state beaches to enforce no-dog policies, and areas are being roped off from human activity so as to not disturb the breeding plovers.

Western snowy plovers are white and beige – perfect for blending in with sand on beaches.

Western snowy plovers are small shorebirds, reaching lengths of about 6 inches. They have thin, black bills and dark gray to black legs.

The bird’s upperparts, the area between the base of the bird’s neck to just above the tail, are pale gray to beige. They have white foreheads and a white stripe along the eyebrow line. The bird’s underparts, the area under the bird’s head to beneath its tail, are white. During the breeding season, adult birds will have dark patches on their shoulders.

Western snowy plovers live along the Pacific coast.

Western snowy plovers are found along the Pacific coast from Washington all the way down to Baja California. The birds that live along the coast generally stay there year round; however, some populations that live inland will migrate short distances to the coast for the winter.

Western snowy plovers prefer sandy beaches – a habitat also loved by humans.

Snowy plovers are prefer sandy beaches above the high tide line – an area that’s also commonly used by humans. They also can be found in salt flats. Snowy plovers prefer areas with little or low vegetation so that they are able to survey the area for predators.

Western snowy plovers like to snack on small invertebrates.

Western snowy plovers will eat small invertebrates such as sand fleas. They will often forage by running forward a few steps, stopping and picking up something that’s edible, then running forward again in search of more food.

Western snowy plovers have a variety of calls, often sounding like trilling or a whistle.

For the western snowy plover’s sounds, check out this page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Male western snowy plovers are in charge of taking care of young.

Snowy plovers breed from early March to the end of September. Their “nests” are not the typical nests that people are used to seeing. Rather, they are made in shallow depressions of sand. Their clutch size, or number of eggs that they lay in a single nest, is 3 on average.

Western snowy plovers are polyandrous, meaning that a female will breed with more than one male at a time. The males and females will share the task of incubating the eggs before they hatch; however, soon after hatching has occurred, some females will ditch the males and leave the responsibility of taking care of the chicks to him.

Snowy plover chicks are precocial, meaning that they are able to move around and forage very quickly after hatching. When looking after the young, adults will not feed them. Instead, they guide them to suitable feeding areas. Adults will look after the young until they fledge, or when their feathers and wing muscles are fully developed for flight. This takes about one month for snowy plovers.

Western snowy plovers act like they’re injured to protect their young.

When a predator is approaching a nest, adult snowy plovers will do a broken wing display, meaning that the adult will pretend to have a broken wing and move in a direction away from the nest. This is intended to lure the predator away from the nest,  to decrease the chance that the predator will find the nest and eat it.

Resources to learn more:

Author: Taylor Crisologo

Taylor studied biology at Cornell University, where she worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on projects ranging from breeding herring gulls off the coast of Maine to dancing lyrebirds in Australia’s Blue Mountains. When she’s not researching great places to experience Bay Area nature, you can find her birding or reading a book at home with her husband and their two indoor cats (Max and Penelope).

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