Plovers and Pyros

By "Tern" Alexa Schirtzinger--"The best thing the piping plover has going for it is its extreme cuteness," wrote Janet Egan on her blog, "Plover Warden Diaries," this June. But is cuteness enough to save it from the fireworks that will light up our skies tomorrow?

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a small songbird (you can listen to its song here) that winters along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and breeds in summer along the northern Atlantic coast and in the northern Great Plains. Piping plovers have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1986--but since then, they've recovered and are currently listed as "Near Threatened." Preliminary estimates from 2007 counted about 1,887 nesting pairs along the Atlantic coast, with some of the largest populations in Massachusetts and New York.

Most of the plover's major threats are human-caused. According to BirdLife International, piping plovers can be vulnerable to predation by domesticated cats and dogs, to habitat disturbance from development in coastal areas, and from foot and vehicle traffic--by which an unseeing human can separate a parent from its young or crush the bird's delicately camouflaged eggs.

In past years, wildlife experts have realized that fireworks, too, can pose a threat to the little plover. That in turn has provoked controversy, pitting environmentalists against Hamptons-goers, dune-buggy racers, and even the likes of high-powered fashionistas like the L'Oréal contingent, last summer. 

(Is it wrong that I consider New York restaurateur and ad man Jerry Della Femina's comment to The New York Times blog last August--"You have some of the most powerful people in the world in the Hamptons, and we've all been defeated by a little bird"--as an unequivocal victory?)

The Fish & Wildlife Service offers a set of guidelines for responsible pyrotechnics, including fencing in plover breeding areas, cleaning up trash immediately after the fireworks, keeping dogs under control, and, well, not setting them off where they're going to hurt the plover population. In the end, is an ephemeral light show really better--or cuter--than this?

Photos (in order) courtesy of: 
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
National Park Service (
Richard Kuzminski, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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