Passing Plover Perspectives on Plum Island

plover animationWhat’s so special about Piping Plovers anyway?

Why is their preservation so important? We’ve been without the Dodo bird a good 300+ years and we’re seemingly no worse for wear.

John James Audobon would have you believe the piping plover is “…a small shorebird, measuring about 7 inches in length, and weighing only about 2 ounces. The species’ pale tan upper parts help it to blend with its sandy habitat. The birds under parts are white, and the legs are yellow-orange.

The plover’s short bill is orange with a black tip during the breeding season, but entirely black during non-breeding months. In breeding season the birds sport a black forehead bar and a thin, black collar…” More to the point, Mr. Audobon, they’re friggin’ cute.

Piping plovers enhance the beach experience and help make Plum Island unique. They keep insects at bay. We should foster and cherish these wonderful but fragile, little shore birds. Preserving their prosperity on Plum Island should be a priority (sorry for the alliteration overdose).

Of course, the whole plover vs. people debate becomes moot the closer Plum Island comes to resembling Atlantis.

It’s no secret that development disrupts their habitat, and beach-goers, unapproved off-road vehicles, and animals (both pets and small, natural predators) can destroy nests and trample young. Their delicate nests often appear to be no more than a pile of rock-like eggs, nestled together in bare sand.

Anyone who’s visited Plum Island in summer is familiar with the restricted signs and fences protecting the plover’s breeding grounds (often covering nearly the entirety of the southern 6 mile stretch of the island).

It’s also no secret that these restricted areas, no matter how vital to the plover’s survival, do not always gel with local residents and the visiting public at large. We all want to be able to enjoy and share the company of these birds, but at what cost?

This debate is not exclusive to Plum Island. There’s plover controversy from Maine, to Cape Cod, to Long Island, down to North Carolina.

In fact, there’s a popular bumper sticker in North Carolina emblazoning vehicles of those who aren’t so enamored with their feathery good looks: “Piping Plovers taste like chicken.” As a former hunter and lover of all things meat, I can’t deny my curiosity with that sentiment. But as a children’s book author/illustrator, and part-time civilized human being, I can’t get over how cute and cuddly these little guys are (IMPORTANT NOTE: Rangers discourage the practice of plover cuddling to the tune of $500 – $25,000 in fines).

There is an account of an unleashed dog attacking and killing a plover chick up the road in Scarborough, ME in July 2013. Federal fines (initially) set the town budget back $12,000 and required the hiring of a Piping Plover Coordinator and new leash law. There’s a concern in Scarborough that if first it’s dogs, how long before there are even greater restrictions on people?

How long before this happens on Plum Island?

These restrictions don’t just affect the everyday beachgoer. Fishermen, surfers, and potentially, erosion rebuilding/preservation efforts could all be impacted by stricter plover restrictions. And in Duxbury, this year’s July 4th fireworks display and festivities were cancelled because of plover nesting.

I’m no expert on ecology and I’m far from a “Piping Plover Coordinator” (I have difficulty coordinating my shoes with the right socks) but I do know it’s no easy task satisfying both the public at large and environmentalists. Is there a middle ground? What are the answers? As you’ll see below, I don’t have them. But maybe someone out there will, someday.

The best I could come up with:

1. Adopt-A-Plover Program. Maybe this could be initiated by The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Maybe by Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center. Maybe by Sally Struthers. It couldn’t be worse than the Adopt-A-Highway Program (has anyone, anywhere actually ever adopted a highway?)

2. Domesticate the plover. Move over Fluffy, step aside Fido (has anyone, anywhere actually ever named a dog Fido?), say hello to Plucky The Plover, man’s new best friend.

3. Plover Farms. They get three squares and a safe place to live. We get plover down comforters and pillows (but no petting zoo. Rangers discourage the practice of piper petting to the tune of… you get the picture).

Failing these braintastic ideas, I’ve heard they taste a lot like chicken. In fact, just a few days ago, I spotted a piping plover from the Panera Drive-Thru nearby Papa Gino’s on Storey Avenue (and I attest that it was not ‘probably just a pigeon’ as my wife suggests). A new free range menu item perhaps? Come on Newburyport, you know you’d try it if they were on a tastings menu at Ten Center Street or Cava tapas in Portsmouth.


See Free Public Programs at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Visit Mass Audubon

Protect the dunes, open the shoreline petition at



About AJ Smith

Though he sometimes does the dreaded commute down 95 to Boston, AJ Smith can most often be found telecommuting from any of our downtown coffee shops. Like many telecommuters today.... different day, different workspace. AJ works as a freelance illustrator and animator, most often in the children's market for clients like Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and Sesame Street (have a peek at his website for a better idea of what he does day to day: . He grew up in the Adirondacks, went to college and worked for several years in NYC before bouncing around NY State a bit more and landing on his feet here on the North Shore. AJ's lived in Newburyport with his wife Karen and two daughters since 2009.

Also a former educator, AJ is a big literacy and art advocate. When not scribbling his fingers to the bone, he loves hiking with his dog, Ogie, day trips with the fam, and anything hockey-related. His first children's picture book, "Even Monsters" debuts nationally in April 2014. is the property of HappyInNewburyport, LLC