Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia's piping plovers still plagued by off-leash dogs, group says

'There's the threat of off-leash dogs crushing eggs, of chasing off the birds,' biologist says

Posted: May 05, 2016

The piping plover is a sparrow-sized bird that arrives each spring in the region to nest and raise their young at beaches, mostly in southern Nova Scotia. (Kejimkujik National Park)

Off-leash dogs are threatening an already endangered species of shore bird in Nova Scotia.

There are less than 50 pairs of piping plovers left in Nova Scotia, down from 60 in 1991.

The sparrow-sized bird arrives each spring in the region to nest and raise its young at two dozen beaches in the province, mostly in the southwestern area, but also along the Eastern Shore to Cape Breton.

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"Dogs off leash are a well-known threat to shore birds, not just plovers," says Sue Abbott, a biologist with Bird Studies Canada and the co-ordinator of Nova Scotia's Piping Plover Conservation program. 

A survey, that began in 2012, monitors the rate at which owners leash their dogs at provincial beaches. It shows too many canines still run free and threaten plover habitat. 

Stay on wet sand in plover habitats

Plovers nest on open beach sand, Abbott said, which makes them — and particularly their eggs and young — vulnerable.

An adult bird has to sit on its eggs in the open sand for 28 days before they hatch, and once the eggs hatch, it takes four weeks for the chicks to fly. In the meantime, "they need to come down to wet sand to feed," she said.

Young plovers are especially vulnerable, biologist Sue Abbott says. (Submitted/Bird Studies Canada)

The piping plover population made some gains, about 15 per cent, between 2006 and 2014, when the conservation program began. The target is to bring numbers back up to 60 pairs, Abbott said.

That means keeping dogs on leash and walking close to the shore in sensitive zones, where there are signs.

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"There's the threat of off-leash dogs crushing eggs, of chasing off the birds so they can't settle on a beach," Abbott said.

Starting in 2012, Bird Studies Canada staff and volunteers have been surveying dog leash rates at about 30 beaches across the province.

Worst offenders on Eastern Shore

The survey results show an overwhelming majority of dogs observed on the Eastern Shore between 2012 and 2015 were off leash. On average, only about five per cent of dogs surveyed were on leash. 

The rate of on-leash dogs at Shelburne and Lunenburg county beaches sits at around 60 per cent from 2012 to 2015, while the average rate along the Northumberland Straight and Cape Breton is about 43 per cent. 

"We've seen the highest levels of dogs being off leash at Conrad's Beach in Halifax and Martinique, as well as Glace Bay beach," Abbott says. 

The number of dogs off leash at Conrad's beach has actually gotten worse since the surveys began in 2012, she says. 

"And dog owners are not allowed to do that — those signs are well-placed, saying dogs must be on leash." 

Abbott says she sympathizes with dog owners, especially in the Halifax region where it can be harder to find wide, open spaces and easily accessible recreation areas where dogs are allowed to run free. 

"Maybe these numbers are a sign that we need more of a community conversation around getting more off-leash dog areas in HRM," Abbott says.