BIRD OF THE WEEK: November 25, 2016
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Charadrius montanus
POPULATION: Fewer than 20,000
HABITAT: Breeds on short-grass prairie; winters on plains, fields, and deserts
The name “Mountain” Plover is misleading, since this is a species of shortgrass prairies. It's also nicknamed “Prairie Ghost” for its habit of freezing in place when threatened, blending perfectly into its grassy surroundings. Unlike other plovers such as the Snowy or Wilson's, Mountain Plovers are not typically associated with water.
The North American Breeding Bird Survey shows declines of over 80 percent in Mountain Plover populations over the past few decades, and this species is included on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. This steep decline is mainly due to habitat loss.
Suitable breeding habitat for Mountain Plovers—along with a suite of other native grassland birds, including the Long-billed Curlew, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Sprague's Pipit—is also disappearing due to declines in populations of native grazing animals such as bison. These animals historically maintained the short grass and open-ground habitat favored by this species.
The bison is now functionally extinct, but prairie dogs continue to play a vital role in creating Mountain Plover habitat. Unfortunately, these social rodents have also experienced steep population declines due to disease, poisoning, and shooting.
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Like other plovers, including the Piping Plover, the Mountain Plover feeds on the ground. Mountain Plovers forage through grasses and recently cultivated fields for insects, particularly grasshoppers. Other insect prey includes crickets, beetles, and flies. A gregarious species, Mountain Plovers can often be found in loose flocks of up to several hundred birds, especially in winter.
Mountain Plovers nest only in areas with sparse vegetation or bare ground, such as prairie dog towns. Their nests are simple scrapes in the ground, and though their eggs are well-camouflaged, they are vulnerable to predators such as coyotes, foxes, and ground squirrels. More than half of egg clutches are lost to predation or accidental trampling.
To compensate for this high rate of loss, Mountain Plovers have developed an interesting behavioral adaptation. After the female lays her first clutch of eggs, the male starts incubating that nest, while the female goes on to lay another clutch in a second nest. This type of incubation allows for a greater yield of chicks than a monogamous system in which both the male and female tend a single clutch together. Females can mate with several males and have several male-tended nests in one breeding season.
Once the chicks hatch, they can almost immediately run and feed themselves. Adults will lead chicks away from the nest scrape to seek shaded, sheltered spots under tall vegetation or even in the shadow of a nearby water tank.
As habitat on breeding and wintering grounds disappears, grassland species have become one of the fastest-declining suites of birds native to North America. On the breeding grounds, Mountain Plover conservation depends on the protection of suitable nesting habitat and nest sites as well as prairie dog protection.
Ranchers are also a key to the survival of this species, as well as Long-billed Curlew and other grassland birds. We're working with farmers, ranchers, and government agencies across the Mountain Plover's breeding grounds to restore grasslands. One of these conservation methods is to promote cattle grazing practices that mimic the natural effects of bison.
A significant percentage of the Mountain Plover's global population winters in the Chihuahuan Grasslands of Mexico. Here, thanks to the efforts of our partner Pronatura Noreste, ranchers in Mexico are now strategically moving cattle from pasture to pasture, mimicking natural processes that maintain habitat for grassland birds.
These conservation practices also benefit species of conservation concern such as the Worthen's Sparrow, a bird recognized by the Alliance for Zero Extinction as a species in imminent danger of extinction.
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