One of the most abundant terrestrial birds wintering in northern North America, the Lapland Longspur breeds across vast areas of the Arctic, where it is almost invariably the most visible and abundant bird and sometimes the only nesting songbird. In winter, it is generally uncommon in eastern North America and west of the Rocky Mountains, but huge numbers can be found west of the Great Lakes and across the Great Plains from southern Canada to northern Texas, often feeding on waste grain in agricultural fields; some flocks have been estimated as large as 4 million birds. Such flocks are sometimes victims of mass destruction at lighted structures when their nocturnal migrations and winter wanderings coincide with snowstorms and poor visibility.
This species is known as the Lapland Bunting in Britain. The North American name “longspur” refers to the unusually long claw on the hind toe of this and other species in the genus Calcarius . The other 3 species of longspur are confined to North America, whereas the Lapland Longspur occupies an extensive Holarctic range, breeding across northern Eurasia.
The breeding biology of the Lapland Longspur in North America and Greenland is well known from studies at several sites throughout its summer range, including St. Michael's, Alaska (Nelson 1887b); Southampton I., Nunavut (Sutton 1932b); Churchill, Manitoba (Taverner and Sutton 1934, Grinnell 1944); Baffin Island, Nunavut (Wynne-Edwards 1952b, Sutton and Parmelee 1955c, Watson 1957a); Bylot Island, Nunavut (Drury 1961b); Victoria Island, Nunavut (Parmelee et al. 1967); Amchitka Island, Alaska; and Cape Thompson, Alaska (Williamson 1968, Williamson and Emison 1971), Devon Island, Nunavut (Hussell 1972); Sarcpa Lake, Nunavut (Montgomerie et al. 1983); and Eqalungmiut Nunaat, west Greenland (Madsen 1982, Fox et al. 1987).
The breeding behavior of this species is relatively easily observed because of its open nesting habitat, its tameness during the breeding season, and its high breeding densities. As a result, studies of this species spanning more than a century have made useful contributions to ornithology, as well as to ecology, behavior, physiology, and evolutionary biology. These have included investigations of growth (Grinnell 1944, Maher 1964, Hussell 1972), development of thermoregulation (Maher 1964), clutch size (Hussell 1972), asynchronous hatching (Hussell 1972), demography (Custer and Pitelka 1977), energy budgets (Custer et al. 1986b), diet (Hussell 1972, Custer and Pitelka 1978, Seastedt 1980), molt (Williamson and Emison 1971, Hussell 1972, Francis et al. 1991), territoriality (Seastedt and MacLean 1979), brood division and dispersal (Mclaughlin and Montgomerie 1985a), foraging and flight speeds (McLaughlin and Montgomerie Mclaughlin and Montgomerie 1985b, Mclaughlin and Montgomerie 1989, Mclaughlin and Montgomerie 1990), and song dialects (Bjørnsen 1988, Mullie 1991).
The unpublished data and observations by RM in this species account were collected during 13 breeding seasons (June–July 1981–1993) of research at Sarcpa Lake (68°33'N, 83°19'W) and to a lesser extent at Igloolik, Nunavut (1984, 1985, 1989–1994), Hall Beach and Iqaluit, Nunavut (various years, 1981–1993), and Point Barrow (1993) and Attu (1994–1995), Alaska. Unpublished observations attributed to DJTH were collected during 4 summers of field work (1966–1969) on Truelove Lowland, Devon Island (75°41'N, 84°35'W), and additional fieldwork at Iqaluit (1959); Igiak Bay, Alaska (1960); and Churchill, Manitoba (1965, 1991).
Migratory behavior is relatively poorly known (but see Irving 1961, West et al. 1968a), and there is little detailed information on winter behavior and ecology, other than a series of studies in Oklahoma (Grzybowski Grzybowski 1976, Grzybowski 1982, Grzybowski 1983b, Grzybowski 1983c).