A Life-Saving Charade
Ambience: Piping plovers
Metzner: Listen carefully and amidst the sounds of the surf and an occasional aircraft, you’ll hear the peep of a Piping Plover. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.
We’re on Fire Island, on the south shore of New York’s Long Island, one of the few places where plovers nest. They’re a threatened species – only about 2000 nesting pairs in the Eastern United States – and protect their young by fooling predators in a remarkable way.
Fraser: It’s a small bird, about five inches long, weighs about as much as 10 quarters, makes its living by running around on the beach and pecking at insects, which is what it’s doing right in front of us right now.
Metzner: Jim Fraser is a professor of Wildlife Conservation.
Fraser: The scientific name is Charadrius melodus, and Charadrius comes from the same root as charade, and it’s called that because it has the habit of doing an injury display. When we get too close to its eggs or its young, it’ll be on the ground and be flapping its wing as if it was injured, and then, it’ll continually move in a direction away from its eggs or young with the hope of attracting predators away from the eggs or young. Occasionally, they do get caught, but they’re pretty good at keeping away from predators when they’re doing that distraction.
What you can see here at the end of the dune line is where Hurricane Sandy has washed the dune away, and so, now you’ve got a flat beach. Instead of having a 0-yard wide beach where the surf at high tide comes right up to the base of the dune so there’s no place for a bird to nest, now you’ve got a beach that’s several hundred yards wide, and there’s plenty of places. And that’s, in fact, where this pair of birds nested – back in that – in that flat area.
Piping plovers elude predators by crypto-coloration, and they really want to be in a big, flat area. They can see foxes or cats coming if they’re out there, and then they can hunker down. They blend in nicely with the background, and it’s very difficult for a predator to find them.
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