They may be tiny shorebirds, but endangered Great Lakes piping plovers require a significant conservation effort, and it’s one that has continued despite a global pandemic. Under normal circumstances, a Detroit Zoological Society-led team would have incubated abandoned piping plover eggs in the rearing facility at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station in Pellston, Mich. Instead, the eggs have made their way to the Detroit Zoo.
“Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the DZS team could not work at the Pellston facility,” said Bonnie Van Dam, associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society in Royal Oak, Mich. “We couldn’t let the pandemic prevent the rescue and rearing of these endangered birds. So, at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, abandoned eggs are brought to the Detroit Zoo for incubation.”
In the early 1980s, a team at the University of Minnesota—along with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the USFWS, and others—began to study the Great Lakes piping plover population. In 1986, only 17 nesting pairs of piping plovers remained in the Great Lakes region, and a federal recovery program was established by the USFWS. Between 1986 and 2002, the population fluctuated between 12 and 51 breeding pairs. Scientists found that, due to human disturbance and other factors, some of the plovers were abandoning their eggs, and they realized salvaging these eggs could contribute significantly to the species’ recovery. The DZS started to assist in the federal recovery program in the 90s and officially stepped in to lead a salvage-rearing program in 2001. In the salvage-rearing program, abandoned eggs are hatched and tiny chicks are reared until they can be released to join wild plovers.
This year, the DZS animal care staff have already nurtured 11 hatchlings and have more eggs incubating. After a few weeks of care at the Detroit Zoo, the tiny plovers are transferred to the Biological Station, where a small team of biologists who work on the Great Lakes piping plover recovery team will ensure the chicks are acclimated to their natural environment. Ready to fly at about a month in age, these birds, which would have otherwise perished, will be banded and released to bolster the small remaining population of wild Great Lakes piping plovers.
Since the launch of the DZS-led piping plover salvage-rearing program in 2001, 260 birds have been successfully reared and released. Currently, there are 61 pairs and 65 nests in the wild. In 2018, the USFWS recognized the DZS for its leadership in the recovery of this endangered species.
Photo Credit: © Detroit Zoo