Death of Piping Plover Serves as Reminder to Keep Dogs on Leash

Photo: Doug Hitchcox 2007

By: Katie Burns and Mary Badger (Piping Plover project interns)

On Monday, July 15, our biologists received concerning news. The Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center called the Piping Plover/Least Tern Project office to report that a dead piping plover fledgling (learning to fly) had been delivered to the Center. The citizen who brought in the plover witnessed the bird being attacked by an off-leash dog.

The death of this plover fledgling was particularly devastating as it had been the only chick to hatch from its brood. The parents had chosen a rather challenging spot to nest on Pine Point Beach in Scarborough, where dogs and foot-traffic cause a constant disturbance to the adults’ incubation of their eggs.

Despite these odds, one chick was able to hatch. The little family then hiked a mile down the beach to a new site, perhaps to avoid the amount of dog and human activity, before finally settling south of the Pine Point public access. After such difficult beginnings, we were delighted to see the chick grow fat and fluffy as it foraged near Snowberry Park. The chick and adult survived the barrage of fireworks over the Independence Day holiday, something that can scare adults to the point of abandoning chicks. On July 13, we witnessed the young bird stretch his wings and make his first attempts to fly. This is always a hopeful sign, marking the beginning of its adult life. After watching this chick’s trials and triumphs, the news that we received of its death is especially heartbreaking.

Plover chicks are unable to fly for about one month after they hatch. Their main defense mechanism is to stand still and rely on their camouflage. The Pine Point chick had fledged, but was not yet an experienced flyer, which still made it a target for predators. While most dog owners would not consider their dogs to be predators, they are the most prevalent threat to plovers on Pine Point Beach. We are lucky to have only a small population of natural predators living in this particular area.

We work hard to ask dog owners to please leash their pets in areas where piping plovers are nesting and foraging. The nesting areas are marked with signs and symbolic fencing in the form of stake and twine. Being dog lovers ourselves, we understand that dogs need their exercise, but we also know that it is in a dog’s nature to want to chase anything that moves. It is the dog owner’s responsibility to leash their pet in areas where endangered piping plovers make their nests.

The incident on July 15 demonstrates that dogs are a very real threat to wildlife. We remind all beach-goers that piping plovers are an endangered species in Maine and protected by Endangered Species Act. The death of a bird can warrant a federal and state investigation. When situations such as this occur, we rely on witnesses to gather all available information so that we can prevent other violations in the future.

Here are some tips on how to be a good witness:

  • Description of People: Get a description of the person, such as height, hair color, gender and clothing
  • Date and Time: Record the date and time of day of the incident
  • Location and Distances: Identify the location of the incident and record landmarks
  • Description of Vehicles: Describe the vehicles involved, especially license plate numbers
  • Describe Event: Take notes on the details of the event, making sure to describe all witnessed events leading up to the occurrence
  • Call us: Piping Plover/Least Tern Project at 207-233-6811.

With factors such as habitat loss, over-population of predators and the harshness of New England weather, piping plovers are literally fighting for their lives. The best way for beach goers to help this species is to give the birds their space. We appreciate all the cooperation and support that we have received from beach communities.