Great Lakes Piping Plovers


Is there a piece of jewelry that you wear all the time that you no longer notice? Maybe a ring or bracelet? Does this item help proclaim something about you? Maybe it's a wedding band or a diabetes bracelet. This same basic concept is what bird bands are. These bands are important for our understanding of birds' biology and their needs. Bird bands have been used for hundreds of years and have led to much of the bird knowledge we have today. Each of our banded Great Lakes Piping Plovers receives a USGS aluminum band with a unique 9-digit number. This number is like the bird's social security number; no other bird will ever be assigned to it. We also use color-band patterns to allow recognition of individuals from a distance. This makes it possible for observers in different locations to piece together information about the lives of individual birds using only binoculars, spotting scopes and digital cameras.

It is estimated that 96-98% of the Great Lakes population is banded and therefore able to be extensively monitored every year. If you’re in the Great Lakes area or somewhere on their wintering grounds, look for orange! Banded piping plovers that are part from the Great Lakes are easy to identify because orange is the unique color band identifier for this population.

Banding Chicks

Great Lakes Piping Plover chicks are banded between five and fifteen days old. Since shorebirds are precocial (Like chickens, Piping Plover chicks fluff up and are running around, feeding themselves within hours of hatching), these chicks have well developed legs, which makes it possible for us to band them at a young age with minimal impact on them. The bands we use are made of either plastic or aluminum, which makes them extremely lightweight. 

Every sibling in a family gets the same color and arrangement of three or four bands (depending on the combination used). This is called a "brood marker combination". There aren't  enough combinations available to give every chick their own unique identifier from hatching, but by giving the chicks from the same family, or brood, the same combination we can study such things as parental success, fledging rates, and return success. . We use specific colors to identify breeding areas so we can usually tell where a chick hatched. Since the number of possible brood-marker color combinations is limited we reuse them in subsequent years.

Slow walk method of chick capture

The team spreads out in dune far from brood with one person on shore at either end.

Slowly closer...

Once the brood is confined...

Charlie Smith

and places them in cloth bags until they're banded.

Once all the chicks in a brood are ready (about 5 minutes)...

They move slowly towards brood without causing them to panic.

and closer.

the team catches them with soft "chick catchers"...

The banding crew works together to quickly weigh and band the brood of chicks.

they are released together to their waiting parents.

Since 2006 we have begun using additional unique identifiers on chicks. We now put a colored dot (red, blue, green, or yellow) on the orange bands. Most combinations also include a colored  band with a three-digit number on it. The combination of the color of the numbered band and the number on it is unique. The colored dots are very useful in counting and identifying chicks before they leave their hatch territories, but once they fledge and leave, the color-dots don't usually give a unique identification. With the advent of high-quality digital photography and digi-scoping observers are often able to read the color-band numbers and sometimes even the number on the aluminum USGS band. We are learning a great deal more about the first years of a GLPIPL's life through the use of these identifying numbers and with the help of observers throughout their range.

Alice Van Zoeren

Chick with yellow dot and 02_ on yellow band

Chicks usually have colored dots on their orange band.  These are the colors used.

Banding Adults

Once a Great Lakes Piping Plover chick becomes an adult and a breeder in the Great Lakes, they get re-banded. This time the bird gets their orange band replaced with an orange flag (we use flags without the numbers or letters you might see on plovers from other populations) and a new pattern of color bands that's unique to them. They retain the USGS metal band that was placed on their leg as a chick and receive two color bands below the join under the orange flag and one below the joint under the USGS band. Thus, each breeding adult gets marked in a way that distinguishes them from every other Piping Plover. Once an adult bird has their unique combo they are not captured again. Only observations are made on these birds in subsequent years. This is to reduce disturbances and interactions with the birds as much as possible. They are handled only twice in their life. Because of these brief banding encounters we can learn much about their entire life history through observations and reports of their unique band colors, and through that information take action to protect the species.

Sarah Saunders removing male from trap for banding.

Placing color-bands on legs

The banding crew is made up of trained professionals. We also are approved and follow all Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) guidelines as well as hold both state and federal bird banding permits. The safety and best interest of the birds is always the first priority. We guarantee that while the act of banding may be intrusive or stressful to the birds, the bands themselves do not largely impact the birds. Multiple studies have supported that the reproductive success, flight ability, overall well being of the bird, survival*, and more are not significantly influenced by wearing one or multiple bands.

*Roche, E. A., Arnold, T. W., Stucker, J. H. and Cuthbert, F. J. (2010), Colored plastic and metal leg bands do not affect survival of Piping Plover chicks. Journal of Field Ornithology, 81: 317–324.

2014 Great Lakes Piping Plover Banding Crew

Have you seen a banded Piping Plover?

Report breeding sightings.

Report non-breeding sightings.

©​​​ GLPIPL  2017