The year 2020 has quite literally gone to the birds. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted people and wildlife around the world, 2020 is a milestone for endangered Great Lakes piping plovers – marking the most successful outcome of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Piping Plover Captive Rearing Program since it began nearly 20 years ago.
The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) program is funded by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and falls under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which was established in 2009 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In July, the EPA celebrated the year’s significance for this endangered species with the release of four Detroit Zoo-reared piping plovers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. This year, a total of 39 Detroit Zoo-reared piping plovers were released in northern Michigan.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said Bonnie Van Dam, associate bird curator for the Detroit Zoological Society. “When you’re hatching the eggs and caring for the baby plovers, you get to know them individually – and it’s so exciting to watch them head into the wild knowing they will help bolster the population of this incredible bird.”
Some of the rescued piping plover stories are harrowing – like the three eggs and single hatchling that were left alone in the middle of an intense storm; their mother was killed by a coyote and their father fled. Field monitoring staff pulled the chick and eggs and kept them warm until they could be transferred to the Zoo.
“We were able to pick them up from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, care for them and monitor them closely. Three out of the four chicks survived and were later released. Those are the stories that stick with you,” she said.
Under normal circumstances, a DZS-led team would have incubated abandoned piping plover eggs in the captive rearing facility at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station in Pellston, Michigan. Due to the pandemic, the eggs were instead sent to the Detroit Zoo.
“We couldn’t let the pandemic prevent the rescue and rearing of these endangered birds. So, at the request of the USFWS, abandoned eggs were brought to the Detroit Zoo this year for incubation and rearing. The plovers were then sent to the Biological Station, where the birds were able to get more acclimated with their natural environment prior to their release,” said Van Dam.
Since the launch of the DZS-led piping plover salvage-rearing program in 2001, 299 captive reared birds have been successfully released. Currently, there are 64 pairs and 79 nests in the wild. In 2018, the USFWS recognized the DZS for its leadership in the recovery of this endangered species.
– Alexandra Bahou is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society.