For the Birds Radio Program: Piping Plovers and Lake of the Woods

Original Air Date: June 19, 2002

Laura talks about the Boo Radley of the bird world.

Audio missing


When I moved to Duluth in 1981, I was thrilled to be coming to a city that was one of the last refuges for nesting Piping Plovers in the United States. The Piping Plover is a tiny little relative of the Killdeer, with only a single breast stripe to the Killdeer’s two, and a pale brown back the color of pale dry sand.

I’ve read a lot about Piping Plovers, but the book that comes to mind when I see one is To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps because of the relatively large head and large eyes, the Piping Plover appears to have a child-like vulnerability, and its shy ways makes it the Boo Radley of the bird world. That pale color accentuates the Boo Radley persona, and whenever I have encountered one, I’ve found myself whispering with quiet delight, like Scout, “Hey, Boo!”

T.S. Roberts doesn’t discuss Piping Plovers as shy, timid characters that could be played by Robert Duvall in his Birds of Minnesota, published in 1936, probably because at the time he was writing it, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee was only 10 years old, and Robert Duvall only 5.

T.S. Roberts noted little more than that Piping Plovers bred locally from southern Canada south to central Nebraska, northeastern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, northern Ohio, northwestern Pennsylvania, and the coasts of New Jersey, Virginia, and North Carolina. Although this was always a rare species in Minnesota, as more and more beaches became developed and had more and more people and dune buggies and dogs trampling the sandy beaches where these beautiful little birds breed, the Great Lakes became an important last holdout for its sheer size.

According to Green and Jansen’s book, Minnesota Birds, Piping Plovers were still present in Duluth and Lake of the Woods when that book was published in 1975. Spring daily counts in Duluth were 8-12 birds, and nests in the port terminal and on Lake of the Woods were annual occurrences. I managed to see Piping Plovers in Duluth every spring during the 80s. Robert Janssen notes in Birds in Minnesota, published in 1987, that Piping Plovers were breeding in only two areas of Minnesota–Duluth and Lake of the Woods. Janssen wrote, “Only time will tell if the species will survive as a breeding bird in [Duluth.]” but even as he was writing his book, development and the burgeoning gull population were dooming the final nesting attempts.

The entire Great Lakes Piping Plover population was dropping until by 1996 there were a mere 48 individuals on the US side of all five lakes and they were lost completely from Duluth. This year one lone migrating Piping Plover was found in Duluth.

Meanwhile, Lake of the Woods became the last place in Minnesota where Piping Plovers are known to have nested. Last year extraordinarily high water levels on Lake of the Woods flooded the breeding beaches on Pine and Currey Islands, and not a single plover managed to nest. This year, although there has been low water and plenty of beach habitat, there are no plovers. The last pair of birds known to have laid eggs there, on a little scrape in the sand on Pine Island a couple of years ago, lost their eggs when some unwitting picnickers canoed over to the island with their dog. Imagine the researchers dismay when they discovered the broken eggs and dog prints in the sand.

Minnesota is the land of 15,000 lakes, and thousands of miles of sand beaches. We humans are certainly reasonable to want a lot of those lakes and beaches for ourselves. But the fact that we people couldn’t keep even a few little stretches of beach off limits to protect this unassuming bird with its shy ways–to me, that’s a sin. It’s like shooting a mockingbird.