Skip to main content

Home > Online Learning Center > Black-bellied Plover

Aquarium of the Pacific - Online Learning Center - Species Print Sheet

Conservation Status:  Safe for Now

Land & Aquatic SpeciesBlack-bellied Plover

Pluvialis squatarola Birds

Black-bellied Plover Photo taken in Alaska during breeding season. | Matt Goff (
Black-bellied Plover - popup
Photo taken in Alaska during breeding season. Matt Goff (

Species In-Depth | Print full entry

At the Aquarium

Our black-bellied plovers were bred at Monterey Bay Aquarium and donated to us. They live in the Shorebird Sanctuary exhibit outdoors on the second floor.

Geographic Distribution

Winter : east and west coasts of the US, Mexico, Central America to coastal southern South America, Bermuda, and the West Indies. Summer: Breeding grounds on Arctic coast from western Alaska to Baffin Island, in Arctic Canada, and also across northern Eurasia.


In the summer, Black-bellied Plovers nest in the Arctic lowlands on dry tundra. They migrate south to winter on coastal sandy beaches, mudflats, marshes, lakeshores, and sometimes in flooded pastures and agricultural fields.

Physical Characteristics

These birds have large eyes, rounded heads, bills that are short, thick, and dark, moderately long black legs, and long, narrow, pointed wings. In summer when adult males display their breeding plumage, a vivid white stripe that runs from the front of the bird’s crown to its wings appears on both sides of the neck . They have a black face, throat, belly, and breast and a white rump, crown, back, and sides. The back, wings and tail feathers are black with white margins or spots. The less colorful females in breeding plumage have a brownish back instead of black with varying amounts of white on the face and throat and less contrasting black and white on the tail feathers. Males and females have a black patch in their axillaries that is evident during flight.

Winter plumage for both sexes is similar. They lack the bold black underparts and their upper parts are medium gray with paler edging. The breast becomes a pale gray.


These plovers are the largest plovers in North America ranging in lengths from 24-33 cm (9.5-13 in) with a wingspan of 56-63 cm (22-25 in). They weigh 160-277 g (5.7-9.8 oz).


Plovers are specialized feeders relying on vision to locate their prey. They forage in mudflats, salt marshes, and broad tidal sands, feeding on marine worms, insects, crustaceans, and small mollusks. They stop, run, and then stop again, scanning to find a meal or stop-run-stop-peck to capture prey with a single peck or series of pecks. They have been observed standing in shallow water close to where the capture took place vigorously shaking their prey to dislodge mud.


Males perform a “butterfly” courtship display to attract females. The male builds a shallow scrape in the ground for the nest which the female then lines with lichen, moss, leaves, twigs, or pebbles. One to five eggs are laid that are pinkish, greenish, or brownish in color with distinct dark spots at the large end. The eggs are 5 cm (2 in) long. Both parents incubate the clutch with the male incubating during the day and the female at night.

Chicks are precocial at birth and begin to feed themselves within one day after hatching. Both parents tend the chick for the first 14 days, and then only the male continues to provide care until the chicks fledge, about 23 to 35 days after hatching.


These birds are normally found singly or in small flocks. Adult birds perform “distraction displays” (for instance, faking broken wings) to distract predators from their nests or chicks.

Black-bellied Plovers are one of the shyer and more wary shorebirds. In a mixed flock of these birds they are usually the first to flush from the nest, feeding, or roosting site when disturbed. They send out an alarm call to the flock as they take flight. They usually fly out over the water, circle, and come back to rest or continue feeding behind the disturbance. If flushed from the nest, they usually return to it.


Compared to shorebirds that find prey by using the bill (tactile feeding), plovers have significantly larger optic brain lobes, presumably because they rely more on visual foraging.


It is estimated that these birds may have a lifespan of more than 20 years in the wild.


Populations of Black-bellied Plovers appear to be stable. They are protected under the Migratory Bird Act and the Agreement on Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds.

Special Notes

Black-bellied Plovers are members of the second-largest family of true shorebirds, the Charadriidae, a family characterized by having very small vestigial hind toes. The Black-Bellied Plover is the only North American Plover that has such a toe.

The wariness and ability to take quick flight of these plovers combined with their isolated breeding territories were instrumental in saving them from hunters who devastated populations of other shorebird species.