Nature Bulletin No. 728 October 19, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
Lake Michigan thrusts a giant thumb into the heart of the Middle
West. Beyond and around our end of it there used to be vast tall-grass
prairies, a multitude of marshes and shallow lakes in northeastern
Illinois, and the enormous Kankakee Marsh in Indiana.
Ornithologists believe that those topographical features were
responsible for the migration routes still followed by many species of
water birds: geese, ducks, wading birds and shore birds. Until recent
years, Calumet Lake and especially Wolf Lake were renowned for the
variety and abundance of shore birds that rested there during
migrations and those that remained to nest and raise their young.
Nowadays some of them may be observed along the shores of Lake
Michigan and in the forest preserves.
The Plovers make up one of seven closely related families of shore
birds. Although world-wide in distribution there are only about 75
species of which 8 occur regularly in North America. Most of them
nest in the far North -- even beyond the Arctic Circle -- and some
travel tremendous distances between their summer and winter homes.
Plovers differ markedly from the snipes and sandpipers in having a
relatively short stout pigeon-like bill somewhat swollen and hardened
at the end. Such bills are not adapted for probing in mud or soft sand
for food -- as the snipes and sandpipers do. Consequently the plovers
are surface feeders and, unlike their relatives, some species are often
found feeding on uplands.
Plovers have shorter plumper bodies than the snipes and sandpipers,
and the neck is much shorter and thicker. They have larger eyes than
the sandpipers and their plumage is more boldly marked --strikingly so
in most species. Like other shore birds they have long pointed wings,
short tails, long slender legs and long toes. However, the hind toe is
either absent or elevated and short. Their mellow piping whistles have
singular carrying power and those of the various species, described in
Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds and the Audubon Water Bird
Guide, are so distinctive that they serve as a means of identification.
The Killdeer, harbinger of spring and subject of our Bulletin No. 482,
is the plover most familiar to most of us because it is a landlubber
commonly found, perhaps miles from water, feeding on freshly
cultivated fields and nesting on prairies, meadows, and even golf
courses. It breeds throughout North America from Central Canada to
central Mexico and winters as far south as Venezuela and Peru.
The so-called Upland Plover, once so abundant on the original
prairies, is actually a sandpiper -- Bartram's Sandpiper. Like the
Golden and Black-bellied plovers, it was almost exterminated by
market hunters after they had slaughtered the last of the passenger
pigeons. Thousands of barrels of those birds were brought to Chicago
markets each year before the adoption of treaties between the United
States, Canada and Mexico, and the passage of laws prohibiting the
killing of migratory birds.
A plover's nest is merely a shallow depression -- on the ground or
among gravel or on the reindeer "moss" on an Arctic tundra. In it the
females of most species lay four eggs so spotted or blotched that they
are perfectly camouflaged, and so pointed that they cannot roll out.
A golden Plover, during the spring migration and breeding season
when countless millions of them used to feed and rest on the virgin
prairies, is the most beautiful species. It is most famous because of
their fall migrations from beyond the Arctic Circle to Nova Scotia and
thence, including a 2400-mile non-stop flight across the ocean, to
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Update: June 2012