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Montana Field Guides

Mountain Plover - Charadrius montanus

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G3
State Rank: S2B

Agency Status
PIF: 1

External Links

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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
The upperparts of the Mountain Plover are generally uniformly brown. This color extends along the sides of the neck and onto the chest. The breast band present in many other plovers is absent in this species; the forehead, throat, and breast are white, while the underwings are bright white (Knopf 1996). The dorsal tip of the tail has a broad, black band, or patch, and the outer dorsal surface of the wings is also black (Knopf 1996, Sibley 2000). This plover is fairly large, 21.0 to 23.5 cm in length and weighing from 90 to 110 grams (Knopf 1996). During breeding, a distinctive black line, or loral stripe, is evident from the bill to the eye. Also at this time, the forecrown will be darkly mottled to black (Knopf 1996). An additional field mark identifying this species is a thin white line on the black-colored wing tip (thin white line in primaries) evident in flight (Knopf 1996). The bill of the Mountain Plover is black; the iris auburn; the legs are a dull, light brown-yellow; the feet are dark brown; and the claws are black (Knopf 1996).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The combination of a black forecrown and white breast is a unique color pattern among North American plover species that distinguishes the Mountain Plover (Knopf 1996). The Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus), Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), and a few other plovers, also have black forecrowns, but their breasts are decorated with a black breast band or black side patches (Sibley 2000). Their habitats are also distinctly different (see Habitat).

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 4231

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Mountain Plovers arrive in April and may remain in the state until September (Johnsgard 1986). The species is a rare migrant west of the Continental Divide, but is a breeding resident of the prairie lands to the east.

Habitat use in Montana appears similar to other areas within the breeding range; use of prairie dog colonies and other shortgrass prairie sites are confirmed as preferred breeding habitat. Records indicate the species utilizes towns of both White-tailed (Cynomys leucurus) and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludoviscianus) (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). These towns provide greater horizontal visibility, a higher percentage of bare ground, more burrows for refugia, and higher diversity of forbs than adjacent areas (Olson 1985). Mountain Plovers will use towns as small as 3 ha (Knowles et al. 1982), but the average on one study was 57.5 ha (Knowles and Knowles 1984) and ranged from 6 to 50 ha in another (Olson-Edge and Edge 1987).

Primary habitat use in Montana during the breeding season includes heavily grazed, shortgrass prairie sites. Habitat in Phillips and Blaine counties, the area containing the largest known populations of Mountain Plover in the state, is dominated by the native plant species Bouteloua gracilis and Koeleria cristata. This area also contains Stipa comata, Agropyron smithii, Carex spp., Artemisia frigida, Opuntia polyacantha, and Gutierrezia sarothrae (FaunaWest Wildlife Consultants 1991). Knowles and Knowles (1993) determined in the northeastern portion of the state, Mountain Plover also selected sites associated with habitat dominated by Atriplex gardneri and Eriogonum multiceps, while use in the central and southwestern areas of the state was associated with Bouteloua gracilis and Stipa comata. Strong preference was also given to sites with slopes less than 5% and grass height of less than 6 cm (3 inches) (Knowles et al. 1995). Knowles and Knowles (1993) indicates that sites selected within these habitat types were restricted to areas intensively grazed by prairie dogs, sheep, and/or cattle, especially those of the Stipa comata and Bouteloua gracilis habitat type (Knowles and Knowles 1997).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
This opportunistic bird feeds primarily on insects (grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, flies, ants). It takes prey from the ground, and selects different food items at different locales (Knopf 1996).

Estimates of densities at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) were 16.2 breeding plovers per 100 ha in prairie dog towns (or 0.28 birds per sq km in the entire area) (Olson 1984). Town size was negatively correlated with plover density. At CMR, courtship, locomotion and maintenance activities decreased with increased temperature on a daily and seasonal basis (Olson 1984). The brood usually moves one to two km from the nest site in the first two to three days (Knopf and Rupert 1996). More than half of the clutches are lost to predators, mainly Coyote (Canis latrans) and Swift Fox (Vulpes velox), and chicks also experience high rates of predation (Knopf 1996).

Records indicate that Mountain Plovers are less common today than in 1900 (Davis 1961), perhaps due to increased irrigated agriculture and/or prairie dog control (Johnsgard 1986, FaunaWest Wildlife Consultants 1991).

These birds are gregarious outside of the breeding season. They forage and roost in loose flocks of changing composition. Flock size may exceed 1000 on the southern Great Plains in late summer; site fidelity seemed poorly developed in winter range in southern California, but the winter survival rate was high (Knopf and Rupert 1995).

Reproductive Characteristics
Mountain Plover eggs are oval, smooth and slightly glossy. Drab, light olive to olive-buff, they are finely speckled, spotted, and decorated with scrawling lines of black and gray; average size is 37 by 28 mm (Baicich and Harrison 2005). Both sexes incubate three, sometimes two or four, eggs for 29 days, but not at the same nest. The female may lay a second clutch while the male incubates the first clutch (Graul 1975). This behavior may be more the rule than the exception (Knopf, pers. obs.). Nestlings are precocial, and fledge in about 33 to 34 days. Adults nest alone or in loosely associated groups. Excessive rain and storms may destroy nests and result in taller vegetation that precludes birds from renesting in the vicinity, as on the Pawnee National Grasslands in 1995 and 1997 (Knopf, unpub. data).

Mountain Plovers are known to nest in a protracted manner; nesting in Montana may extend from late May to late July (Johnsgard 1986, Knowles and Knowles 1993). Chicks have been observed as early as June 8, with the latest date of an incubating bird on July 18 (Knowles and Knowles 1993). Observations by Knowles and Knowles (1993) indicates that either all eggs are not successfully incubated or that chick mortality begins shortly after hatching, i.e. there is a steady decline in the number of chicks per brood with increasing age.

The average number of chicks per brood, at time of hatching, over a seven year time period was 1.82 (Knowles and Knowles 1997). In the northeast portion of Montana, Mountain Plovers generally used broad, gently-sloped valley bottoms for nesting; in the central and southwest, they used ridge tops and lower foothills extending from the footslopes of the mountain ranges (generally associated with the Stipa comata/Bouteloua gracilis habitat types); and in the northeast, they were associated with the dwarf shrub communities of Atriplex gardneri and Eriogonum multiceps (Knowles and Knowles 1997).

No management activities in Montana specific to Mountain Plover are regulated. However, the unifying habitat features desirable to Mountain Plovers are extremely short vegetation, a high percentage of bare soil, and an extensive area (0.5 to 1 km diameter) of nearly level terrain (Knowles and Knowles 1997). Management practices should emulate these parameters and may include practices to: 1) identify, map, and protect areas where Mountain Plovers currently nest; 2) identify, map and protect prairie dog towns located on level shortgrass prairie habitats to ensure these populations persist; 3) areas of potential Mountain Plover habitat should not be converted to agriculture nor have range improvements that increase forage for livestock (particularly planting exotic grasses); 4) combine light to moderate grazing with prescribed burning, which has the added benefit of reducing woody species (Wershler 1989); 5) restrict off-road vehicle use between April 1 and August 1 in areas identified as potential Mountain Plover habitat; 6) maintain areas of intensive grazing on level (less than 10% gradient) shortgrass prairie communities; 7) efforts should be made to reduce the likelihood of invasion by non-native species such as (but not restricted to) cheatgrass, leafy spurge, and knapweed. In both Montana and nationally, range and abundance have been reduced considerably in the last century; there is no evidence that this is stabilizing (FaunaWest Wildlife Consultants 1991, Knopf 1991). Knopf (1991) recommended upgrading federal status to C1. Population estimates for Montana range from 750 to 1000 (Knopf 1991) to 1487 to 2820 (FaunaWest Wildlife Consultants 1991). The species is ranked #1 in conservation effort needs for Montana (Carter and Barker 1993), and is a Species of Management Concern in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 6 (USFWS 1995).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison. 2005. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Second edition. Academic Press, New York.
    • Carter, M. F. and K. Barker. 1993. An interactive database for setting conservation priorities for western neotropical migrants. U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report RM-229:120-144.
    • Davis, C.V. 1961. A distributional study of the birds of Montana. Ph.D. Dissertation. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University. 462 p.
    • FaunaWest Wildlife Consultants. 1991. Status and breeding distribution of the mountain plover in Montana. Report to USDI Bureau of Land Management, Billings, MT. 44 p.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1986. Birds of the Rocky Mountains: with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Colorado Associated University Press, Boulder, CO.
    • Knopf, F. L. and J. R. Rupert. 1996. Reproduction and movements of mountain plovers breeding in Colorado. Wilson Bulletin 108:28-35.
    • Knopf, F.L. 1991. Status and conservation of mountain plovers: the evolving regional effort. Report of research activities, USFWS National Ecology Research Center, Fort Collins, CO. 9 p.
    • Knowles, C., P. Knowles, M. Maj, and D. Hinckley. 1995. Mountain plover numbers, reproduction, and habitat use in three areas of Montana. Prepared by FaunaWest Wildlife Consultants for Bureau of Land Management, Billings, MT. 26 p.
    • Knowles, C.J. and P.R. Knowles. 1993. Mountain plover numbers, reproduction, and habitat use in three areas of Montana. FaunaWest Wildlife Consultants report for the Bureau of Land Management, Billings, MT. 50 p.
    • Knowles, C.J., C.J. Stoner, and S.P. Gieb. 1982. Selective use of black-tailed prairie dog towns by mountain plovers. Condor 84:71-74.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Olson, S.L. 1984. Density and distribution, nest site selection, and activity of the mountain plover on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. M.S. thesis. University of Montana, Missoula. 62 pp.
    • Olson, S.L. 1985. Mountain plover food items on and adjacent to a prairie dog town. Prairie Naturalist 17(2):83-90.
    • Olson-Edge, S.L. and W.D. Edge. 1987. Density and distribution of the mountain plover on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The Prairie Naturalist 19(4):233-238.
    • Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 544 pp.
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Migratory Bird Management. 1995. Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the United States: the 1995 list. U.S. Government Printing Office: 1996-404-911/44014. 22 pp.
    • Wershler, C. R. 1989. A management strategy for mountain plovers in Alberta. Proceedings of the Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Workshop, Saskatchewan Natural History Society and Canadian Plains Research Center. 5 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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    • Clark, T.W., H.A. Harvey, R.D. Dorn, D.L. Genter, and C. Groves (eds). 1989. Rare, sensitive, and threatened species of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, Montana Natural Heritage Program, The Nature Conservancy, and Mountain West Environmental Services. 153 p.
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    • Federal Register: February 16, 1999 (Volume 64, Number 30). Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: Proposed Threatened Status for the Mountain Plover. Proposed Rules. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. pp. 7587-7601.
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    • USFWS. 2003. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Withdrawal of the Proposed Rule to List the Mountain Plover as Threatened. Federal Register 68(174):53083-53101.
    • Wallis, C.A. and C.R. Wershler. 1981. Status and breeding of Mountain Plovers (Charadrius montanus) in Canada. Can. Field-Nat. 95(2): 133-136.
    • Watts, C.R. and L.C. Eichhorn. 1981. Changes in the birds of central Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 40:31-40.
    • Wiens, J.A. 1973. Pattern and process in grassland bird communities. Ecological Monographs 43:237-270.
    • Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. Mountain plover (Charadrius montanus). University of Wyoming, WYNDD, Field Guide. Accessed 20 December 2022 (originally accessed 28 November 2001).
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Citation for data on this website:
Mountain Plover — Charadrius montanus.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from