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Stateside Podcast: Monty and Rose's piping plover love story

Rose, a piping plover, on the beach
Gordan Garcia
The piping plover Rose digs her feet into the sand at Montrose beach in Chicago. The courtship between Rose and fellow piping plover Monty has earned the birds a bit of a fan club—and their own documentary.

Like many Michigan grandparents, piping plovers have flown south for the winter—to places like Florida and Texas.

But the endangered species makes its summer home along the Great Lakes shores. And birders in Michigan and other states patiently await their return. In Chicago, they're waiting for a sort of piping plover celebrity couple: Monty and Rose.

They've got scores of fans in the city, their own merchandise, a beer named in their honor, and a documentary.

Filmmaker Bob Dolgan joined Stateside to discuss his film Monty and Rose 2: The World of Monty and Rose — which is streaming next week through the Thunder Bay International Virtual Film Festival.

Dolgan told us that in the last few years, Monty and Rose have inspired large numbers of birdwatchers and non-birders alike to help with their protection efforts along Chicago’s Montrose Beach, home and namesake of the birds.

“We have at least two people there during nesting season from dawn to dusk, informing the public about the plovers, looking out for predators,” said Dolgan. “We thankfully also have some fenced areas where the plovers often are found, and they also have a nesting exclosure, which is a wire cage that goes over their nest to ostensibly protect it, the eggs there, from predators.”

Piping plovers are a rare and endangered species. Monty and Rose are just one of “about 70 pairs remaining around the five Great Lakes."

Piping plovers hadn’t nested in Chicago since 1948, but once Monty and Rose began displaying “courtship behavior,” people began to rally around them. And Dolgan said he thinks he popularity of the plovers are a key factor in the protection effort’s success.

“A group of people started to protect the birds, just sort of, at first, standing around those nests, informing the public, any passersby that there were piping plovers there, and that they needed to be careful. And it just sort of snowballed from there.”

The cute, small bird is sized between a sparrow and a robin. They have puffy round bodies, a black band around their necks, and long, spindly legs.

“They nest along beaches. They blend in beautifully with the sand and gravel, and they find what they need in the form of worms and invertebrates and other species, larva, in the sands of the Great Lakes region,” explained Dolgan.

a small fuzzy piping plover chick with a white belly and sandy coloring stands on a beach with sparse grass around it
Gordan Garcia
Piping plover eggs and chicks (like the one pictured here) can be vulnerable in the open space of a beach.

Even though they are well-camoflauged, their beach habitat is still treacherous for the birds, especially chicks. Plovers scrape nests right into the sand, and their eggs and chicks are easy prey for myriad wild animals. Their nests are also prone to disruption by beach-goers and their dogs.

Monty and Rose also had to contend with a music festival slated for Montrose Beach in 2019. There was an outcry over what it would mean for the piping plovers' nesting site, and the festival was eventually relocated.

“That [festival] sort of propelled the birds to some fame and ended up, I think, helping draw a lot of volunteers out. Just people who heard about the bird, some people who wouldn't consider themselves birders, but wanted to do something to help out, and those numbers grew. Eventually, we had 200 people volunteer that first year and about the same number in subsequent years.”

The birds’ charming disposition may be another factor in their popularity.

“They're just very charismatic, and we're able to get fairly close to them. I mean, sometimes it feels like they kind of come up to you on the first weekend of the year and say, 'hi.' They practically greet us when we walk out there, especially when it's someone they trust.”

Since their meet-cute, Monty and Rose have birthed eight offspring. And with a population as small as the piping plover, even just a few birds can be a big help.

“There's been a stated goal from the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Project and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of getting to 150 pairs by 2050.”

While there’s still much work left to do, Dolgan and the piping plover community are on the right track.

“I do believe when people are more aware of piping plovers, whether birders or non-birders alike, I think that there's a greater likelihood that the birds will have success.”

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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.
Additional music byBlue Dot Sessions.

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April Van Buren is a producer for <i>Stateside</i>. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.