Plovers (PLUH-verz or PLOH-verz) and lapwings vary in size from about 5.5 to 16 inches in length (14 to 40 centimeters) and from 1.25 to 10.5 ounces (35 to 298 grams) in weight. Members of the family tend to have chunky bodies, legs that are either short or of medium length, and short bills. Most species are black and white in color with some areas of brown or gray. Some species have bold markings on the face, dark rings around the neck, or black and white wing markings. Lapwing species sometimes have bright wattles, folds of skin that hang from the neck. Lapwings also have spurs on their wings that they use to fight with members of the same species or to defend their nests from intruders.


Plovers and lapwings are found worldwide, on all continents except Antarctica.


Plovers and lapwings occupy a wide range of habitats including seashores, the banks of freshwater lakes and ponds, grasslands, and even flooded tundra areas. Many species occupy human-associated habitats such as agricultural fields, sewage ponds, airports, golf courses, roads, and rooftops.


Plovers and lapwings eat a diverse diet of aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, animals without a backbone, small vertebrates, animals with a backbone, such as fish or lizards, and plant materials such as berries and seeds. Berries are a particularly important part of the diet of tundra species, since there are lengthy periods where few or no insects are available. Most members of this family catch food by running after prey and pecking at it with their bills. Some species use their feet to pat at or scratch the ground to reveal prey. One species, the Magellanic plover, is known for turning over stones to find prey. More aquatic plovers and lapwings, such as the red-kneed dotterel or white-tailed plover, search for food in the water, often sticking their heads underwater to snatch prey. One species, the wrybill, has a special curved bill that it uses to grab mayfly larvae or fish eggs from the bottoms of rocks.


Some plovers and lapwings remain in the same area throughout the year, while others migrate between breeding habitats and wintering habitats. Most species form flocks during migration and the nonbreeding season. However, one species, Mitchell’s plover, is usually found in groups of no more than six individuals. Plovers and lapwings spend a significant amount of time running on the ground, but are good fliers as well. They are active both during the day and at night. Many species are quite noisy.

Most plovers and lapwings build “nests” that are scraped indentations on the ground. One species, however, the shore plover, builds a nest at the end of a tunnel it makes through vegetation. Some species prefer to build their nests in areas that have recently been burned, in part because these areas are usually full of new plant growth, which attracts large numbers of insects. Most plovers and lapwings are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), with a single male breeding with a single female. However, there are also instances of polygyny (puh-LIH-juh-nee), in which a single male mates with multiple females; polyandry (PAH-leean-dree), in which a single female mates with multiple males; and cooperative breeding, in which adults other than the parents (usually the older siblings of the new chicks) help care for chicks. Females generally lay between two and six eggs at a time, with four being most common. Eggs hatch after between eighteen and thirty-eight days. The chicks are precocial (pree-KOH-shul), meaning they are covered with down at birth and able to move. Chicks generally leave the nest soon after hatching. In most species, adults do not feed the chicks. The single exception is the Magellanic plover, which is usually able to raise only one chick per breeding season. Magellanic plover adults feed chicks by regurgitating (re-GER-jih-tate-ing; throwing up) food.


Two plover species, the black-bellied plover and goldenplover, were hunted for food in North America during the 1800s. Conservation efforts for the snowy plover and piping plover, which breed on sandy beaches, often conflict with people interested in hunting.


Among the sixty-six species of plovers and lapwings, one is considered Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction; two are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; five are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and six are Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened. The Javanese lapwing is listed as Critically Endangered and is, in fact, likely extinct—it has not been seen since 1940. The St. Helena plover is Endangered, with only about three hundred individuals remaining. The St. Helena plover declined primarily because of habitat loss, human disturbance, and predation of chicks by cats and the common myna. The shore plover is Endangered due largely to loss of habitat and predation by cats, rats, and the brown skua. There are only about 150 individuals left in the wild. Vulnerable species include the New Zealand dotterel, mountain plover, piping plover, wrybill, and sociable lapwing. Near Threatened species include the Magellenic plover, Madagascar plover, Malaysian plover, Javan plover, hooded plover, and Mitchell’s plover.