This bird is no chicken.
It's not the first time piping plovers have been in hot water. They were nearly driven to extinction in the 19'h century due to excessive hunting, mainly for the millinery trade. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 afforded their populations an opportunity to recover, but after World War II the decline resumed. With increased development and recreational use in coastal habitats, people began building, driving, and playing on the wild beaches that piping plovers once pretty much had to themselves. Not only did the piping plover have to contend with natural predators, high tides, and storms, it now also had to deal with shrinking habitat and increasing numbers of people competing for the beaches that plovers needed to survive. The plover had its hands (make that wings) full.
By 1986, the piping plover population along the Atlantic coast had fallen to fewer than 800 pairs, making it necessary to list the population as threatened. Many areas along the coast began intensively managing the piping plover. Sections of upper beach were fenced to protect nests, and regulations limiting some recreational activities were posted and enforced. State and federal agencies began regulating or even closing vehicular use of nesting beaches. These new restrictions created tension with some user groups, and the plover bashing began.
That's where I stepped in. In the course of my 20 years with the National Park Service, most of it spent working with piping plovers, I came to realize that protecting nesting birds and their young was not enough. Gaining public support is important to their recovery. Since the plovers couldn't speak out, I had to do so on their behalf. This could mean taking the time to show a visitor how vulnerable a plover chick is to an unleashed dog, or just how well concealed a plover nest really is. One by one, you could see visitor attitudes change. They now realize the battles the plover face are real.
In the early 1990's, Barbara Beers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a wonderful piping plover lesson plan. It included slides and a script outlining the habitat, life history, and threats to piping plovers, along with classroom activities. The lesson plan inspired me to take it on the road. Each year since 2000, I've been starting my season at Cape Cod National Seashore by visiting local schools, preaching the gospel of plovers. I created my own slide presentation, incorporating some of the slides and ideas from the Fish and Wildlife Service plan, and off I went.
I speak mainly to 5th graders. It's a perfect age; they are open minded and enthusiastic. My favorite part comes after viewing the slide presentations. We move all the desks to the sides of the classroom and the room becomes a beach, with the students as piping plovers. The students enact three scenarios; the first, a wild undisturbed beach. The second, a beach with human disturbance, and third, a beach with a predator trying to eat plover chicks. In each scenario, the plovers are trying to run down their designated lane to the intertidal zone where they can feed on marine invertebrates (represented by dry beans). If there is a threat in their designated lane, the plovers (students) must run back to a safe zone.
As you can imagine, it's easy for the first group of plovers, but increasingly difficult for the latter two groups. Many are out of breath, sprawled out on the floor. They love the game. The hands-on activity allows the kids to feel what it might be like to be a plover, leading to a better understanding of the issues. Not only is it their minds, the plight of the piping plover is now in their hearts. In past years, I handed out "I'm a Plover Protector" buttons to the kids. They all wore them like a medal of honor. I get hand drawn pictures and letters from kids thanking me for what I do and reassuring me that they will now help protect the plover on their beaches. One girl wrote "I learned a lot from the plovers-they have a hard life to live."
I know not everyone will love plovers. I am reminded of this every time I see that bumper sticker. But I hope the more than 3,500 students and teachers that I have spoken to over the past few years have a better understanding of the challenges faced by piping plovers and a greater willingness to share the beach with these amazing birds. While endangered species management must be based in science, education is also a critical component of effective recovery. Through this program we are sowing the seeds of concern for the piping plover, which we hope will bear fruit as support for plover management in the next generation.
The piping plover's main defense is camouflage. While this strategy for evading predators worked well for millennia, it didn't work well with the increasing numbers of humans. Most beachgoers would be hard pressed to pick out an adult plover on the beach, much less their sandy-colored eggs that blend perfectly with the open sand, or the chicks, which are flightless for a month. As a result, eggs and chicks were being accidentally stepped on or run over. Moreover, the wrack line, a mixture of plant detritus and invertebrates the plovers feed on, historically washed up freely along the shoreline. Now it was increasingly being removed to "tidy" up the beach. The wild nature of the beach was disappearing and so were piping plovers.
Mary Hake, a biological technician with Cape Cod National Seashore, can be contacted at mary@hake_nps.gov or 508/ 255-2112, ext. 14.
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|Publication:||Endangered Species Bulletin|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2004|
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