American Golden-Plover

Pluvialis dominica



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Figure 2. Annual cycle of American Golden-Plover.

Figure is based on the annual cycle of Pacific Golden-Plovers overwintering in Hawaii and breeding in Alaska (Seward Peninsula). Most of American Golden-Plover cycle in Alaska (arrival, breeding, initiation of body molt, and departure) is similar; completion of body molt and primary molt need study. On the distant overwintering range of American Golden-Plover in Southern Hemisphere, spring migration begins much earlier than shown here, and fall movements of juveniles may extend later into the fall and early winter months; see Migration for details.

Definitive Alternate (breeding) American Golden-Plover.

Medium-sized plover, similar in appearance to the Pacific Golden-Plover. Note white neck stripe that terminates abruptly at upper breast, which is characteristic in Alternate plumage. Projection of primaries past tail can be useful to differentiate from Pacific Golden-Plover in all plumages.

© Eric Gofreed , Alaska , United States , 15 June 2017
Definitive Alternate (breeding) male American Golden-Plover.

Crown, nape, mantle, scapulars, tertials, and wing coverts dark grayish brown with bolder yellow or buffy spots and fringes. Sides of head and breast with continuous white stripe from forehead through supercilia, down sides of neck to widened, bulbous breast patches. Sides of head (below white stripe), and underparts entirely black, a few birds showing scattered white in vent and undertail coverts. Males in "full" alternate-plumage appearance such as this one are possibly at least two or three years old (see text), but more study is needed.

© Ian Barker , Manitoba , Canada , 18 June 2017
Definitive Alternate (breeding) female American Golden-Plover.

Similar to Definitive Alternate male, but black feathering of face and underparts mottled whitish, grading into white head-neck stripe, resulting in the latter being less clearly defined than in male. Auriculars often with distinctive white cheek patches.

© Ian Barker , Manitoba , Canada , 13 June 2017
Definitive Alternate (breeding) American Golden-Plovers in flight.
© Alan Van Norman , North Dakota , United States , 15 May 2011
American Golden-Plover undergoing Prebasic Molt.

During Prebasic Molt, plumage of males and females becomes progressively less dimorphic as alternate feathering replaced. Early stages of molt most noticeable on black cheeks and underparts which become mottled with lighter feathers.

© Shayna Marchese , New Jersey , United States , 17 September 2017
American Golden-Plovers in flight.

Note the smoky gray underwing. This flock contains birds undergoing the definitive prebasic molt (with mottled black bellies) and juveniles, along with a single Black-bellied Plover (sixth bird from right).

© Alix d'Entremont , Nova Scotia , Canada , 15 September 2017
Basic (non-breeding) American Golden-Plover.

Note duller and softer pattern on upperparts, and more smudged, unpatterned breast and underparts when compared to juvenile. Sides of head are grayish with darker auriculars and loral smudge, and prominent whitish supercilia. Following complete molts on winter grounds, Formative and Definitive Basic plumages not distinguishable. This individual may undergo a prealtenate molt here or at other stopover locations closer to the breeding grounds.

© Mike Cameron , Texas , United States , 25 March 2017
American Golden-Plover undergoing Definitive Prealternate Molt.

Definitive Basic underparts mostly pale grayish brown, with belly and undertail whitish. Note replacement of body feathers and wing coverts. Following complete over-winter molt this bird cannot be reliably aged.

© Víctor Sánchez , Maldonado , Uruguay , 5 February 2017
Juvenile American Golden-Plover.

In all plumages, appears slim with primaries projecting well past tail. Head is dovelike. Aged by relatively crisp and uniform pattern on upper- and underparts. Brightest juveniles may show wash of gold, especially on crown, mantle, and rump.

© Dan Lory , Michigan , United States , 11 September 2017
Juvenile American Golden-Plover (left) with juvenile Pacific Golden-Plovers (middle, right).

Features useful for distinguishing American Golden-Plover from Pacific Golden-Plover are the grayish coloration of the American versus the buffier ground color of the Pacific, the smallish bill, shorter legs, and longer primary projection.

© Brian Sullivan , Alaska , United States , 21 August 2004
Juvenile American Golden-Plover (left) and Juvenile Black-bellied Plover (right).

American Golden-Plovers are smaller, and slimmer than the similar Black-bellied Plover. Juvenile golden-plovers are usually more golden brown on the back, with a more distinct dark cap. Note projection of primaries past tail.

© Nate Kohler , Montana , United States , 4 October 2016
Juvenile American Golden-Plover.

Juvenile Plumage is similar to Definitive Basic Plumage, but feathering is more even and distinct in pattern and wear. Crown, mantle, back, scapulars, and tertials are dark grayish brown marked with pale yellow to whitish edges and spots. Chest, breast, and sides are buffy white and spotted and barred with gray.

© Chris Wood , New York , United States , 20 September 2008
American Golden-Plover undergoing Preformative Molt.

Upperparts and wing coverts are mixed with fresh formative and older juvenile feathers, the latter not heavily worn or marked, as occurs in older alternate feathers during Definitive Prebasic Molt.

© Etienne Artigau , Rocha , Uruguay , 30 December 2006
American Golden-Plover completing Prejuvenile Molt.

Prejuvenile molt progresses rapidly, and is complete by late June to July.

© Amanda Guercio , Manitoba , Canada , 24 July 2013
American Golden-Plover chick.

Natal down well developed at hatching. Crown and back overall dull yellowish to whitish, mottled with fine black markings. Underparts are grayish white.

© Scott Heidorn , Alaska , United States , 26 June 2012

A medium-sized plover that is very similar in appearance to the Pacific Golden-Plover. Ranges of all standard measurements overlap between the two species (see 2; Appendix 1). The following features are helpful, but not infallible, in separating species: total length of American Golden-Plover (24–28 cm) frequently exceeds that of Pacific Golden-Plover (23–26 cm); flattened wing in American Golden-Plover is > 180 mm and in Pacific Golden-Plover is typically < 175 mm; American Golden-Plover tends to have slightly shorter bill and tarsus, and tibia less exposed giving the species a somewhat shorter-legged appearance than Pacific Golden-Plover; in all plumages, Pacific Golden-Plover upperparts are spangled with bright yellow markings on dark grayish-brown background, American Golden-Plover upperparts are similar but less colorful. The most reliable field criteria for identifying the two species (2) are: interspecific differences in definitive alternate plumage appearances during spring and part of the summer; extension of primary feather tips beyond the longest tertials on folded wing, typically 4–5 tips in American Golden-Plover, 2–3 tips in Pacific Golden-Plover (although beware of molting or growing tertials); primary tip projection past end of the tail greater in American Golden-Plover (about 12–22 mm) than in Pacific Golden-Plover (around 0–9 mm). Individual variation often associated with molting during the non-breeding season and in transitional plumages while molting will make some individuals (including extralimital records) difficult to impossible to identify with certainty (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 2).

Most males in definitive alternate plumage are easily separable to species: white neck stripe of American Golden-Plover terminates abruptly at upper breast, and flanks and undertail coverts black; in Pacific Golden-Plover, white continues past the breast forming an irregular but conspicuous wash along sides and flanks, and undertail coverts are predominantly white. This plumage in females is less colorful, with variable numbers of whitish feathers on breast and face producing mottled appearance. Obvious sexual dimorphism is typical in Pacific Golden-Plover and in most American Golden-Plover, though some American Golden-Plover females are less mottled, darker (brownish black), and nearly male-like in appearance.

Definitive basic, formative, and juvenile plumages are generally distinctive: head, neck, breast, and upperparts grayish in American Golden-Plover, bright yellowish buff in Pacific Golden-Plover. However, subtle variation in appearance of non-breeding feathering can be misleading in terms of species separation (8, 4, 9, 5, 6, 10). Age criteria uncertain for first-year birds in spring because juveniles replace all primary wing feathers during Preformative Molt (contra Pacific Golden-Plover, 11, 12). Thus, appearance of these feathers identical to adults (13), also wing lengths (though on average shorter in first-year birds) overlap with adults (12, 14).

Body masses are similar in both species but extremely variable (about 100–200+ g) over the annual cycle. Abnormally low body mass can occur in juveniles during stressful fall migration (an 86 g juvenile was reported in the Caribbean (15). Such mass loss is relatively common in juvenile Pacific Golden-Plovers (see 16).

Similar Species

See above for criteria to separate Pacific Golden-Plover from American Golden-Plover. The American Golden-Plover is smaller than the Eurasian Golden-Plover (Pluvialis apricaria). Also, Eurasian Golden-Plover has mostly white wing-linings, whereas the underwing of American Golden-Plover is smoky gray. Black axillars, white wing stripe, and white rump and uppertail distinguish the Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) in all plumages from the three golden-plover species. Compared to the latter, alternate plumage of the Black-bellied Plover is particularly distinctive with silver-gray upperparts, white undertail, and more extensive white on the head, neck, and sides of breast.

Detailed Description

Most of this section is based on detailed descriptions of plumage, often for American and Pacific golden-plovers combined (17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 15, 11, 25, 3, 4, 26, 9, 5, 6, 27, 12; OWJ, unpublished data). Several of these sources (4, 9, 27) contain particularly helpful photographs of American Golden-Plover (both sexes), in the plumages described below, often in comparison with Pacific Golden-Plover. Additional published photos are available (e.g., 28, 2, 29, 30). Treatment by Byrkjedal and Thompson (31) complements our descriptions below, and includes useful diagrams and sketches. See Pyle (12) for detailed information on molt and age determination, and Dwight (32) and Stone (33) for early accounts of molts.

American Golden-Plovers have 10 full-length primaries (numbered distally, p1 to p10), 15–16 secondaries (numbered proximally, s1 to s11, and including 4–5 tertials, numbered distally, t1 to t5), and 12 rectrices (numbered r1 to r6 distally on each side of the tail); plovers are diastataxic (34) indicating that a secondary has been lost evolutionarily between what we now term s4 and s5. Wings are long and pointed and tail is short and squared. Geographic variation in appearance is slight at best (see Systematics: Geographic Variation). No geographic variation in molt strategies has been reported, although variation is marked between American and Pacific golden-plovers, and molt strategies may vary among potential hybrids between these two species.


Natal Down

Present June–July. Natal down well developed at hatching. Crown and back overall dull yellowish to whitish, mottled with fine black markings; except for crown and black malar stripe, remainder of head, throat, and nape solid whitish; underparts grayish white. Whether sexes dimorphic uncertain.

Juvenile Plumage

Present primarily July–October. Similar to Definitive Basic Plumage but feathering more even in pattern and wear. Crown, mantle, back, scapulars, and tertials dark grayish brown, the feathers marked with pale yellow to whitish edges and spots; rectrices grayish brown faintly barred dark brown, with small lateral whitish-yellow spots and fringing to tips; lores moderately dark forming indistinct loral smudge; auriculars and neck spotted and streaked with dirty white and brownish gray; whitish supercilia prominent; upperwing lesser and median coverts same background color as upperparts, with whitish, buffy, and pale yellowish markings; chin whitish; chest gray, mottled and spotted with grayish brown; breast, sides, and flanks grayish white with grayish-brown barring, heaviest on breast and becoming finer and less dense on flanks; belly and undertail whitish.

Formative Plumage

Present primarily October–April. "First Basic" and/or "Basic I" plumage of Humphrey and Parkes (35) and some previous authors. Unlike all other Pluvialis plovers, Preformative Molt includes the juvenile primaries. Formative Plumage and Definitive Basic Plumage are essentially identical, though potentially separable from faded juvenile secondaries retained during Preformative Molt (36). During molt, juvenile outer primaries become progressively worn and outer rectrices (r6) are usually drab and unbarred (Figure 385 in 12), allowing separation from birds undergoing Definitive Prebasic Molt. In some birds between 1 and 9 juvenile middle secondaries (among s1–s9) can be retained (36); an unknown proportion of Formative birds complete secondary molt and become indistinguishable from older birds. Sexes similar, except that dark barring on both juvenile and formative outer rectrices averages slightly more distinct in males than in females (Figure 385 in 12); this allows determination of some but not all individuals when used alone.

First Alternate Plumage

Present primarily April–September. First Alternate Plumage likely variable (although probably not as variable as in Pacific Golden-Plover): plumage aspect may appear nearly as developed as Definitive Alternate Plumage or it may show varying degrees of partial alternate feathering, perhaps in some birds more-closely resembling retained Formative Plumage with a few feathers replaced; this last appearance is perhaps more common on individuals that remain on winter grounds for their first summer. First Alternate Plumage identical to Definitive Alternate Plumage in tail feathers, and nearly identical in wing as at least some juvenile secondaries usually retained. These provide a potential age criterion on breeding grounds: combination of fresh primaries plus only a few new secondaries indicates first-year bird; if all secondaries fresh, then bird is 2 or more years old (36).

Definitive Basic Plumage

Present primarily October–March. See Definitive Prebasic Molt for appearance of breeding birds transitioning into Supplemental or Definitive Basic Plumage before southbound migration. Upperparts including crown dark grayish brown with dull yellow, buffy, and whitish spots and fringes; rectrices barred pale and dark grayish brown; sides of head grayish with darker auriculars and loral smudge and prominent whitish supercilia. Upperwing lesser and median coverts gray-brown with whitish margins and tips; tertials gray-brown with indistinct whitish margins and dusky bars; greater coverts, primary coverts, and remainder of remiges grayish, the greater coverts with indistinct white and dark bars along edges, the greater and primary coverts with white tips, and the primary shafts dark basally and terminally but white subterminally (especially conspicuous on outer 5–6 primaries). Underparts mostly pale grayish brown with slight wash of pale yellow; belly and undertail whitish.

During Definitive Prebasic Molt, plumage of males and females progressively less dimorphic as alternate feathering replaced. Following molt, sexes similar, except that outer rectrices (r6) about 80% sexually dimorphic with males showing crisply defined dark gray/grayish white or black/white bars and females showing less defined (more somber) coloration (Figure 385 in 12). Definitive Basic and Formative plumages potentially separable based on retained juvenile secondaries mentioned above.

Second and Definitive Alternate Plumages

Present primarily April–September.

Male. Crown, nape, mantle, scapulars, tertials, and wing coverts dark grayish brown with bolder spots and fringes, mostly yellow, some buffy; sides of head and breast with continuous white stripe from forehead through supercilia, down sides of neck to widened, bulbous breast patches, which in some birds almost meet on the midline; frontal band above base of upper mandible, sides of head (below white stripe), and underparts entirely black, a few birds showing scattered white in vent and undertail coverts. Second Alternate Plumage likely similar to Definitive Alternate Plumage in most or all males, but a few birds may require an additional cycle, showing mottled whitish feathers, similar to but fewer than found in First Alternate Plumage (above), as is found in Pacific Golden-Plover. However, these may also be individuals in First Alternate Plumage that have completed molt of secondaries. Flight feathers largely similar to those of Definitive Basic Plumage.

Female. Similar to Definitive Alternate male but black feathering of face and underparts mottled whitish, grading into white head-neck stripe, resulting in the latter being less clearly defined than in male; auriculars often with distinctive white cheek patches. Occasional female dark and male-like in appearance (37), but feathering usually brownish black instead of jet black as in male (OWJ). Differences between male and female Definitive Alternate Plumages were set forth by A. C. Meinertzhagen (see 38) and confirmed in subsequent field studies (39).


Molt and plumage terminology follows Humphrey and Parkes (35), as modified by Howell et al. (40, 41). American Golden-Plover exhibits a Complex Alternate Strategy (cf. 40), including complete preformative (except for a few secondaries, see 36) and prebasic molts and limited to partial prealternate molts in both first and definitive cycles (Figure 2). A Definitive Presupplemental Molt of flank feathers has been reported in Pluvialis (42, 31, 43), but confirmation is needed (see 12 and below). Definitive appearance can be attained at Formative and Second Alternate plumages, although not until the Definitive Basic and/or possibly the Third Alternate Plumage in some males (see Plumages, above).

Prejuvenile (First Prebasic) Molt

Complete, late June–July, as young mature and forage on the tundra. One “nearly six-day-old male” had no juvenile feathers except for “barely visible” wing quills (44). Primaries also erupt at approximately 6 days of age. Prejuvenile Molt progresses rapidly, prior to fledging at < 30 d (see Breeding: Young Birds). Otherwise, no detailed information on timing or sequence of pennaceous feather irruption and development.

Preformative Molt

"First Prebasic" and/or "Prebasic I" molt of Humphrey and Parkes (35) and some previous authors. Molting may start before or after arrival to overwintering grounds, with body-feather molt occurring primarily from October to early December; molt of flight feathers occurring mostly in October and November, some birds likely extending into March (13). Preformative molts differ in extent between American and Pacific golden-plovers (11, 25, 12, 13), being complete (except for a few secondaries, see 36) in American Golden-Plover and incomplete in Pacific Golden-Plover (the latter retains juvenile primaries until Second Prebasic Molt). Some American Golden-Plovers can retain up to 9 inner and middle secondaries (among s1–s9) (36); proportion of birds that undergo a complete Preformative Molt unknown. Sequences of flight-feather replacement as in Definitive Prebasic Molt, although sequence of secondary replacement may differ (36); additional study needed.

First Prealternate Molt

Limited to partial, April–June. Much of this molt (and subsequent Definitive Prealternate Molts) occurs while American Golden-Plovers are en route north (14). Extent of First Prealternate Molt can approach that of Definitive Prealternate Molt while in some individuals, molt can apparently be less complete. Replacement of body feathers and wing coverts variable, ranging from partially to about half or more complete. From 1–4 tertials and/or 1–2 central rectrices occasionally replaced, but averages fewer feathers than in Definitive Prealternate Molt. Birds oversummering on overwintering grounds likely average fewer feathers replaced, possibly very few or none in some birds.

Second and Definitive Prebasic Molts

Complete, July–March (Figure 2). Second Prebasic Molt averages earlier in timing, especially for oversummering 1-yr-old birds. Primaries replaced distally (p1 to p10), secondaries replaced proximally from s1 and s5 and distally from the tertials, and rectrices probably replaced distally (r1 to r6) on each side of tail, with some variation occurring.

For breeding birds, Definitive Prebasic Molt can commence on breeding grounds during incubation (Figure 2). Early stages of molt most noticeable on black cheeks and underparts which become mottled with lighter feathers. Molt of primaries and rectrices deferred until arrival on overwintering grounds (45, 36), and less body molt prior to arrival on the overwintering range than in Pacific Golden-Plover (46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51). Molt protracted on South American overwintering grounds, often or usually extending into February–March, as is typical of shorebirds overwintering in the Southern Hemisphere, that lack time constraints on molt (12).

Presupplemental Molt resulting in supplemental feathering with possible cryptic function has been described on underparts of breeding Eurasian Golden-Plovers in both sexes (42, 31). Whether ventral body molt of nesting American Golden-Plovers involves like elements or simply represents late Prealternate Molt or early Prebasic Molt is unclear (43, 12).

Definitive Prealternate Molt

Partial, February–June (Figure 2), sometimes commencing on overwintering grounds and completing at stopover sites or on summer grounds. Includes some to most body feathers, up to 90% of secondary coverts, often 1–5 tertials, sometimes 1–2 (occasionally 3–4) central rectrices (occasionally asymmetrical with 1 rectrix of a pair fresh and the other old); males average greater number of feathers replaced; e.g., in females typically only as much as 40% of wing coverts replaced (12). First birds to begin and complete Prealternate Molt usually males, with some males achieving full Alternate aspect in about 10 wk. The possibility that two inserted molts including a Presupplemental Molt occur in spring, one primarily on winter grounds and one primarily at stopover locations, as in other shorebirds, should be investigated (cf. 52 ).

Bare Parts


Black in all ages, including hatchlings.


Dark brown throughout life.

Legs and Feet

Dark grayish brown to gray in hatchlings. In older birds, varies from gray and grayish black to black. Grayish tones seem to occur most often in juveniles (OWJ).

Linear Measurements

Representative data are summarized in Appendix 1. For additional linear measurements, see 53, 39, 54, 17, 55, 56, 3, and 14. There are no significant differences in linear measurements between the sexes.


Upon arrival at the breeding grounds, most birds are likely carrying fat reserves, but no precise measurements are available. Limited and sometimes conflicting information on mass change during subsequent weeks may reflect regional variation in food supplies and weather. Mass change of males and females during breeding season are mixed. Body mass of plovers sampled in north-central Alaska from May to July decreased by 4–9% in males and 10–15% in females (57); at Barrow, Alaska, females averaged 14% heavier than males during May and June, suggesting that females were less stressed than males (F. A. Pitelka, unpublished data; see 8); at Churchill, Manitoba, limited data (Appendix 1) suggested that females were less stressed (P = 0.05), whereas males and females on nesting grounds in the Seward Peninsula, Alaska, did not differ in mass (P = 0.39; Appendix 1). For additional mass measurements, see 58, 39, 59, 60, and 14.

Recommended Citation

Johnson, O. W., P. G. Connors, and P. Pyle (2019). American Golden-Plover (Pluvialis dominica), version 3.1. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.