GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Wildlife experts say the Great Lakes piping plover is showing slow signs of growth but still needs human intervention to save the species.

The tiny birds are endangered and nearly went extinct in the 1980s. Francie Cuthbert, a professor with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology has studied the Great Lakes piping plover for decades.

“There were only 12 to 17 pairs, so they were functionally extinct in the Great Lakes region — extirpated as a population. So, the situation was pretty dire,” Cuthbert told Michigan Radio.

Over the last few years, an average of 70 breeding pairs of Great Lakes piping plover have been found along the Great Lakes coast. This year, wildlife experts counted 74. Still, it is considered one of the most endangered species in the Midwest.

Biologists say the Great Lakes piping plover is extremely picky when it comes to making a nest. They prefer beaches with a lot of pebbles and rocks, and if they ever feel threatened, they will abandon the nest.

A member of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service helps tag a Great Lakes piping plover chick for tracking purposes. (Courtesy USFWS)

Over the last few decades, habitat loss has been a big problem. There aren’t many isolated beaches left along the Great Lakes, with more homes and other development growing on the shoreline. The birds are also a nice snack for several predator species, including crows and raccoons.

The team at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is doing its part to help the birds. They post signs and rope barriers to help keep people at a safe distance from nests — especially visitors with dogs.

Erica Adams, the piping plover coordinator at Sleeping Bear Dunes, says protecting the endangered species requires teamwork.

A Great Lakes piping plover walks along the beach, showing off his different tracking bands. (Courtesy USFWS)

“It’s a big group effort between park employees, partners working with us, and then a large volunteer group that also helps us keep an eye on the birds,” Adams told Michigan Radio.

A coordinated effort monitors the birds regularly, watching for eggs, making sure the parents stick around and then counting the chicks.

Adams said if the parents do get scared away by a predator or a pest, biologists intervene and rescue the eggs.

“We have a partnership with the Detroit Zoo and the University of Minnesota that will then take those eggs, put them in a captive rearing facility and complete the incubation period,” Adams told Michigan Radio. “The chicks will hatch and then usually they’re released back in the park. They’re able to go out and forage, learn how to be a plover, and then they’ll eventually migrate.”

Like most birds, Great Lakes piping plovers head south for the winter. Tracking data shows most of them spend the winters along the coast in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. However, some prefer the Gulf of Mexico, while a couple stayed as far north as New Jersey.