Sprague's Pipit

Anthus spragueii

  • Version: 2.0 — Published October 10, 2014
  • Stephen K. Davis, Mark B. Robbins, and Brenda C. Dale

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Figure 1. Distribution of Sprague's Pipit.
Adult Sprague's Pipit; Saskatchewan; May.

A secretive, and solitary bird of short, patchy grassland. Sexes are similar; buffy overall, with extensive white feathers on outer retrices. Dark streaked crown, with plain face, large eyes, and pale eye-rings. Upperparts buff with darker streaking, with two indistinct wing-bars, and fine blackish streaks on breast and flanks (can appear as "necklace"). Legs are pale, with elongated hallux hindclaw. Taken 22 May, 2005 in Saskatchewan, Canada, by Glenn Bartley.  The following is a link to this contributor's website: Glenn Bartley Nature Photography.

Sprague's Pipit in flight; Caldwell, KS; October.

Males maintain their territory with aerial displays that involve long periods of circling over the territory, and constantly flapping except while singing. They end the display by dropping down to the ground and leveling off just before dropping into the grass. Note extensive white on retrices. Taken 23 October, 2011, in Caldwell, Kansas by Brian Sullivan. The following is a link to this contributor's eBird checklist: Brian Sullivan.

Sprague's Pipit is one of a handful of birds endemic to the North American grasslands. Until recently, most information on this species was from more general studies of northern mixed-grass avian communities. The species is best known for the persistent flight displays of territorial males. Indeed, Sprague himself stated, “While out I watched one of the new titlarks for nearly an hour--as it sailed over my head high in the air--singing its simple notes at intervals of about 10 seconds, the song itself occupying about 5 seconds. While singing they remain nearly still moving their wings in a rapid manner like a little hawk, and in the intervals between they sweep around in an undulating manner closing the wings to the body like the goldfinch” (Allen 1951). Displays often last for over thirty minutes, but durations of at least three hours have been documented. This pipit often goes undetected during migration through the Great Plains, and almost nothing is known about its behavior on the wintering grounds in the southwestern and south-central United States and northern Mexico.

Audubon described and named this species after his friend, Isaac Sprague, who discovered the first nest near Fort Union, North Dakota, in June 1843 (Allen 1951). Since its discovery, it has suffered dramatic declines in numbers throughout its range as prairie ecosystems have been lost and degraded.

Early studies include those by Maher (1973, 1974), Owens and Myres (1973), and Dale (1983) in Saskatchewan and Alberta, with early winter information by Grzybowski (1982) in Oklahoma and Texas. More recently, key studies of breeding biology include those by Davis (2009), Dohms (2009), and Davis and Holmes (2012) in Saskatchewan; studies on juvenile survival and dispersal by Davis and Fisher (2009) and Fisher and Davis (2011a) in Saskatchewan; habitat selection research by Davis (2004, 2005), Davis et al. (2006, 2013), Sutter (1997), Fisher and Davis (2011b) in Saskatchewan, Koper et al. (2009) in Alberta, Dieni and Jones (2003) in Montana, and Madden (2000) in North Dakota; work on reproductive success by Davis and Sealy (2000) in Manitoba, Davis (2003) in Saskatchewan, and Jones et al. (2010) in Montana; research on nest predators by Davis et al. (2012) in Saskatchewan; and research on abundance, distribution and habitat selection on the wintering grounds (Macías-Duarte et al. 2009, Pool et al. 2012).

Recommended Citation

Davis, S. K., M. B. Robbins, and B. C. Dale (2014). Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.439