This was originally posted on the COS blog on November 22, 2018.
We humans are such creatures of habit.
When I was in college, at the start of a new semester I used to note where the others sat. I'd let a few weeks go by until the seating habits solidified. Then one day I'd get to class early, plop myself in another student's place, and watch the reaction when she (or he) entered the classroom and saw me there. The annoyance was usually very obvious, and sometimes funny, as the displaced student couldn't hide her discomfort at having to slide into a seat that was not "hers." And it often cascaded, as each displaced person likewise displaced someone else. I would only play this game once per semester, letting the class return to equilibrium the next day. I told myself I was studying human nature, but actually I was just a bored college kid being a jerk.
For the Piping Plover, a similar game is being played on a grand scale, and it could be a matter of life and death for the species. Like most migrating shorebirds, the Piping Plover is a creature of habit. But the Piping Plover borders on OCD. Those that nest in the Great Lakes area spend the winter months hanging out in South Carolina and Georgia. Then when spring arrives, and it's time to head north to raise a family, they return to very specific strands of beach along the northernmost shores of Lake Michigan--so specific that mating pairs have been found returning year after year to build their nest within 150 feet of the same location as the previous years. If you have visited Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes, you know there are not very many landmarks in that vast expanse of sand. What an amazing feat!
But if a pair of Piping Plovers return in spring, and someone or something else is in their seat, it's more than just an inconvenience. It's likely that this pair will not find a different place to build their nest, and they will raise no offspring that year. In fact, that is exactly what has been happening--not just to the Piping Plovers that nest in the Great Lakes area, but to other populations in the upper plains and on the Atlantic coast. Habitat loss and disturbance have put this beautiful bird on the endangered species list; their numbers have dwindled to an estimated total of only about 10,000 birds.
Fortunately, the habits that imperil the Piping Plover may also be a source of their revival. Scientists who study these birds and work to protect them know exactly where to find them in the spring. Specific, targeted tracts of shoreline can be fenced off during the nesting season, to keep humans and dogs away--like putting a "Reserved" sign on a classroom seat. By protecting the Piping Plover's nesting areas from encroachment in this way, diligent research teams are giving the Piping Plover a leg up in its fight for survival. Isn't that what conservation is all about? It's nothing more than saving a seat for wildlife, and then sitting down beside them in our shared world.