Should I Talk to a Stranger Walking a Dog Off Leash Near Nesting Birds?

Experts say it depends on the situation—and your comfort level.
A sign affixed to a metal post on a beach reads "Piping Plover nesting area." The posts, connected by string, designate a restricted area.
Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon

Enjoying a sunny day on the sand, you see a beachgoer walking a dog off leash—despite signs stating that dogs must be leashed to protect nesting birds. Do you speak up? Or mind your business?

“There’s many things a person can do, depending on their comfort level,” says John MacDonald, a corporal at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which handles dozens of cases involving humans, dogs, and shorebirds every year. Since game wardens can’t patrol beaches 24/7, he encourages birders to share their knowledge of the beach’s regulations and the sensitive birds nesting there.

MacDonald says this assistance from beach recreators has helped the number of Piping Plovers, a federally threatened and state-endangered species in Maine, jump from 33 breeding pairs in 2011 to 125 in 2021. “It’s really the public, and the volunteers and beachgoers, who are helping police with this and making it a success,” MacDonald says.

If you go this route, tone is important. “Give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they have good intentions,” says Laura Zitske, the coastal birds project director at Maine Audubon. The dog walker may be genuinely unfamiliar with a beach’s leash policy. She suggests approaching with kindness and the intent to share knowledge, rather than berating or being condescending. Emphasizing how birds and humans can share the beach together, especially during those vital summer breeding months, can help shift someone’s perspective. “Education really is a powerful tool of getting people engaged and doing the right thing,” she says.

Proactively spreading the importance of sharing the shore can head off potential conflicts.

Maureen Durkin, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who coordinates Piping Plover conservation for Rhode Island, recommends involving local authorities, such as lifeguards or park rangers, instead. "We generally don’t encourage people to confront others on the beach,” she says. In serious situations—where dogs or people are aggressive to birds—call the state wildlife agency. Taking detailed notes and photos or video, if it’s safe to do so, can help officials educate and issue citations.

Proactively spreading the importance of sharing the shore can also head off potential conflicts, Durkin notes, by opening eyes to overlooked birdlife. Birders taking the time to point out the camouflaged plovers to beachgoers, even allowing a glance through binoculars or a spotting scope, can have a positive influence, she says. “A lot of times people are just really taken by it and have never had that opportunity before.” She hopes that this early engagement will pay dividends, and reduce the number of potential human-bird conflicts during the birds’ prime nesting season.

Whether you decide to engage your fellow beachgoers to share knowledge before or after an incident, or simply call local law authorities, it’s a win for the birds at the beach this summer.

This story originally ran in the Summer 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.