THE PIPING PLOVER PROJECT
Piping Plovers are shorebirds similar to (but much smaller) than the more familiar Killdeer, and the Great Lakes population is highly endangered. Only about sixty breeding pairs exist, and they are limited to the Lake Michigan and Huron beaches of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ontario. Much of their decline is due to habitat loss. Since Plovers and humans are both attracted to the same beaches, suitable breeding sites are becoming increasingly rare. Predation by both wild and domestic animals is also a big problem, and the population is so fragile that even accidents or weather events can cause significant damage.
In 2002 John Ball Zoo began participating the the plover recovery program, which operates out of the University of Michigan Biological Station near Pellston. Breeding birds are monitored by researchers from the University of Minnesota, various state and federal agencies, and a network of volunteers. After all, that's a lot of beach to cover in search of little grey and white birds. When eggs or young chicks become orphaned or abandoned, they're brought to the biological station. That's where we come in. Every summer, JBZ sends two keepers for week-long stints at the station. While there we incubate eggs, care for chicks and prepare the little fluffballs for a return to the wild. We try to keep them as isolated from us as possible. Their rearing boxes are surrounded by a curtain, and a loop of lake noises plays constantly in the background. When we need to have direct contact with them, we reinforce that we're scary by playing a recording of adult Piping Plover distress/warning calls. As chicks get older we begin putting them in an outdoor playpen for the day, complete w
ith the lapping waves of Douglas Lake. When the chicks are a month or so old researchers return them to the beach. To make this easier they try to locate a site having a wild family group with chicks of a similar age. The chicks bond with one another almost instantly, and will tag along. While the "foster parents" may not have an interest in watching somebody else's kids, they don't have much of a choice. Shorebirds are a lot like chickens or ducks and receive little direct parental care after the first few days. Mom and dad act more like lookouts and guides.
John Ball Zoo certainly isn't alone in this undertaking. The captive rearing program is overseen by the Detroit Zoo, and zoos from around the state and around the country participate. I've even worked with people from as far away as Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Denver Zoo. There's always at least one keeper there during the breeding season, and sometimes as many as three. I've been up there at times that we had only eggs and more than one keeper and other times where I was alone with eggs and multiple sets of chicks. Never know from week to week or year to year how busy it will be. The birds had a good breeding season last year, due in part to a lack of storms, so only six chicks had to be raised at the station. But every Plover is priceless to the population and gene pool and is more than worth the time and effort.
I'm proud that John Ball Zoo is able to help safeguard the Piping Plovers, and that I've been lucky enough to participate.
Photos by Jaime Racalla