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Detroit Zoo helps bring back Great Lakes' piping plovers

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

This year has been understandably viewed as one of the worst ever for a variety of reasons but wildlife and bird lovers are embracing it as producing a milestone in protecting an endangered species: the tiny piping plover.

The small, white and gray, long-legged bird, native to the Great Lakes region, was noticed about 20 years ago as having disappeared from some beach areas. Known for its sharp “chirping” sound and skittering activity along lakeshores, at one point it was estimated there were fewer than 17 nesting pairs — and that the population was shrinking.

But so far this year, a salvage-rearing program led by the Detroit Zoological Society has released 39 of the birds in northern Michigan, among 299 piping plovers reared in captive and released since 2001.

The piping plover, which can drop between two and four eggs at a time, migrates south to southern Florida, and the Caribbean in the fall as temperatures cool.  

Currently, there are 64 pairs and 79 nests in the wild. 

The zoo's piping plover captive rearing program is part of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service effort and falls under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, established in 2009 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In July, the EPA celebrated the year’s significance for this endangered species with the release of four Detroit Zoo-reared chicks at the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in northwestern Michigan. 

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said Bonnie Van Dam, associate bird curator for the zoological society. “When you’re hatching the eggs and caring for the baby plovers, you get to know them individually — and it’s so exciting to watch them head into the wild knowing they will help bolster the population of this incredible bird.”

Piping plovers walk through their habitat at the Detroit Zoological Society as part of a captive rearing program under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, established in 2009 by the Environmental Protection Agency. At one point, it was estimated there were fewer than 17 nesting pairs of the small, white and grey colored, long-legged bird.

Nests are abandoned due to predators and largely human activity, said Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the zoological society.

“Either people disrupt them or allow their dogs to run unleashed,” he said.

Wildlife officers regularly fence off and post known nesting areas to discourage intrusion by beachcombers and their pets. The plover's sandy colors help it blend into flat beach areas. 

Under normal circumstances, a team led by zoological society experts would have incubated abandoned piping plover eggs in the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station in Pellston. Due to the pandemic, the eggs were instead sent to the Detroit Zoo and once hatched, returned to the station for release to the environment.

Carter said the piping plover is part of the Great Lakes ecosystem and the species needs to be protected like any occupant of our planet.

“Between natural predators, like other birds; humans and their dogs and flooded nesting areas — it was nearly wiped out,” he said. “We don’t know the consequences of that and I don’t think we want to know.”

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