Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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 Patagonia.

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