Pipits occur on all continents, except Antarctica, with many species that are often difficult to distinguish from each other. The American Pipit was long known as the Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta), a wide-ranging species with seven subspecies occurring from the shores of Great Britain and Scandinavia, and the high mountains of Europe and central Asia, to North America. Recent taxonomic studies, however, have shown that the three North American subspecies and the most eastern asiatic subspecies are best regarded as a distinct species, now referred to as the American Pipit (A. rubescens). Nevertheless, because of the close similarity between spinoletta and rubescens, the old world literature sheds much light on the biology of the American Pipit.
The American Pipit is an inconspicuous, slender, migratory songbird that occurs throughout North America and south to El Salvador. It is one of a very few species of ground-inhabiting songbirds that breed at high altitudes in alpine meadows and on the arctic tundra. Despite its generally inhospitable habitat, this species has been relatively well studied. Its alpine and arctic environment is ecologically relatively simple, so interactions among species are easier to understand. In addition, short summers and climatic extremes impose restrictions on the timing of this pipit's breeding cycle. How this species, and other pipits, have adapted to such extremes is a question worth investigating.
Key studies are relatively few and focused on the breeding season. Sutton and Parmelee (1954) reported on clutch size and nest fates on Baffin Is. in the Canadian Arctic; Conry (1978) studied resource use and breeding biology at Guanella Pass, CO; Miller and Green (1987) analyzed the recent appearance of thie species in the Sierra Nevada, CA, and identified the likely route for colonization. The population inhabiting the Beartooth Plateau on the Montana-Wyoming border is the best-studied: breeding and foraging behavior, spring snow conditions and timing of egg laying, nest site placement and orientation, clutch size, egg hatchability, nestling development, molt, site fidelity, habitat use, and diet have all been described to a greater or lesser extent (Verbeek 1965, 1970, 1973, 1981, 1994; Hendricks 1987a, 1987b, 1991a, 1993, 2003; Hendricks and Norment 1992, 1994).