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Description of Residence for Piping Plover (Charadrius Melodus, Circumcinctus and Melodus Subspecies) in Canada

Section 33 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) prohibits damaging or destroying the residence of a listed threatened, endangered, or extirpated species. SARA defines residence as: “a dwelling-place, such as a den, nest or other similar area or place, that is occupied or habitually occupied by one or more individuals during all or part of their life cycles, including breeding, rearing, staging, wintering, feeding or hibernating” [s.2(1)].

The prohibition comes into effect immediately upon listing for all threatened, endangered, and extirpated species on federal lands, and for species under pre-existing federal jurisdiction on all lands. Species under pre-existing federal jurisdiction are aquatic species (a wildlife species that is a fish, as defined in section 2 of the Fisheries Act, or a marine plant, as defined in section 47 of that Act) or migratory birds protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act. SARA also contains a provision to prohibit the destruction of non-federal species’ residences on provincial, territorial, and private lands by way of an Order by the Governor in Council (GIC), if the Minister of the Environment recommends it necessary to do so [s.34(2), 35(2)].

The following is a description of residence for the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus –circumcinctus and melodus subspecies), created for the purposes of increasing public awareness and aiding enforcement of the above prohibition. As a migratory bird protected under the MBCA, the Piping Plover is under federal jurisdiction and thus the residence prohibition is in effect on all lands where the species occurs. Piping Plovers are known to have one type of residence – a nest.

Species Information:

Common Name – Piping Plover

Scientific Name – Charadrius melodus (circumcinctus and melodus subspecies)

Current COSEWIC Status & Year of Designation – Endangered (2001)

Occurrence in Canada – circumcinctus subspecies: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba (Figure 1) and Ontario; melodus subspecies: Québec, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island (Figure 2)

Rationale for Designation – Predation, habitat loss and human disturbance

Known distribution of the Piping Plover circumcinctus subspecies in Prairie Canada

Figure 1. Known distribution of the Piping Plover circumcinctus subspecies in Prairie Canada. An extra-limital breeding record exists for Lake Athabasca in northern Saskatchewan. In Ontario, Piping Plovers breed only at Lake of the Woods, northwest of Rainy River. This location is about 210 km southeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba.


Piping Plover melodus subspecies Range Map

Figure 2. Known distribution of the Piping Plover melodus subspecies in Eastern Canada and St. Pierre et Miquelon, France.

1) The Nest

Photo (by J. Paul Gossen): typical Piping Plover nest

Physical Appearance and Context

The residence of the Piping Plover is defined as the nest. The nest is a small (9-10 cm in diameter and 1-2 cm deep) bowl-shaped depression (a “scrape”), usually lined with small, light-coloured pebbles (Figure 3)5 or shell fragments. Multiple scrapes may be constructed within a breeding territory and it may take several days for the pair to settle on one nest. Nests are rarely, if ever, reused3.


Photo (by J. Paul Gossen): typical Piping Plover breeding habitat at an alkalia like. Note gravel habitat near the middle of the picture.

Circumcinctus subspecies:  Piping Plovers establish their nests on beaches, islands and sand spits of alkali3 (Figure 4) and freshwater2 lakes, river sand bars3 and occasionally on artificial habitats such as parking lots or dyke roads2. Wide, sparsely vegetated sand or mixed sand and gravel beaches are preferred. Nests are rarely located in dense alkali areas of beaches3. Nests are sometimes found beside small rocks. The annual suitability of the plover's nesting habitat may be unpredictable from year to year because precipitation and drought influence wetland conditions2. River and reservoir nesting habitats are affected primarily by the timing and amount of water from mountain snow melt and secondarily by heavy precipitation events and water management operations.

Melodus subspecies: Piping Plovers establish their nests onsand, pebble, gravel and cobble beaches, barrier islands, sandspits or peninsulas found in marine coastal areas. Occupied beaches are generally wide and most often with sparse vegetation. Artificial habitats such as those created by deposition of dredge spoils and gravel parking areas located near coastal zones are occasionally used. Winter storms may create new nesting habitat in previously unsuitable coastal areas.


Piping Plovers normally use nests from early May to late July. Most first clutches are initiated during the first two weeks of May3. Nests with eggs in April or August are a rare occurrence. Each nest is exclusively used by one pair of Piping Plovers and their chicks. The most frequent clutch size is four eggs which are laid in 7 days4. The eggs are pale buff marked with fine splotches of black, brownish-black, or purplish black and measure approximately 32 mm x 24 mm3. Both male and female incubate the eggs for about 28 days. The hatching period usually occurs over several hours but may extend to two or three days1. After hatching, the precocial young remain in the nest until dry. Chicks are mobile within a few hours of hatching and make foraging forays away from the nest but return to the nest to be brooded by the adult3. Parents and chicks abandon the nest within a day of the last egg hatching and do not use the nest during the remainder of the breeding season. Parents and young may remain within the territory where the nest was built unless disturbed3 or move beyond the territory for other reasons. In Canada, young are capable of sustained flight at 22-25 days of age.

Damage and Destruction of the Residence

Damage or destruction to the nest includes loss of access, function and/or structure of the nest. Of concern to SARA are direct and indirect anthropogenic effects on the residence. This includes, but is not limited to, water management (flooding), cattle management (trampling nests), recreational activities (e.g. beach activities, pets, all terrain vehicles or other motorized or non-motorized vehicles), sand mining and extraction, discharge of oil and industrial, cottage and landscape developments or modification activities (beach cleaning, trampling, leveling, or dumping).

Period and Frequency of Occupancy

Active nests should be protected annually during 1 May through to 15 August. Piping Plovers normally produce only one brood per year, however renesting is possible if the eggs are lost. Adults exhibit high fidelity to breeding sites, regularly returning to previously used habitats in subsequent years. Protection should include nest building, egg laying, incubation, hatching, and immediate post-hatching periods – a total time frame of approximately 40 days.


1Boyne, A.W. 2001. Updated COSEWIC status report Piping Plover Charadrius melodus. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa, Ontario.

2Goossen, J.P., D.L. Amirault, J. Arndt, R. Bjorge, S. Boates, J. Brazil, S. Brechtel, R. Chiasson, G.N. Corbett, R. Curley, M. Elderkin, S.P. Flemming, W. Harris, L. Heyens, D. Hjertaas, M. Huot, B. Johnson, R. Jones, W. Koonz, P. Laporte, D. McAskill, R.I.G. Morrison, S. Richard, F. Shaffer, C. Stewart, L. Swanson and E. Wiltse. 2002. National Recovery Plan for the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus). National Recovery Plan No. 22. Recovery of Nationally Endangered Wildlife. Ottawa.

3Haig, S.M. 1992. Piping Plover. In The Birds of North America, No. 2 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC: The American Ornithologists' Union.

4Murphy, R.K., B.G. Root, P.M. Mayer, J.P. Goossen and K.A. Smith. 1999. A draft protocol for assessing Piping Plover reproductive success on Great Plains alkali lakes. Pages 90-107 in K.F. Higgins, M.R. Brashier and C.D. Kruse (eds.), Proceedings, Piping Plovers and Least Terns of the Great Plains and nearby. Brookings: South Dakota State University. 132 pp.

5Whyte, A.J. 1985. Breeding ecology of the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) in central Saskatchewan. M.Sc. thesis, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. 153 pp.