Chestnut-collared Longspur

"Grassland Spirit"

Chestnut-collared Longspur. Photo by All Canado Photos/Alamy Stock Photo.

At a Glance

  • Scientific Name: Calcarius ornatus
  • Population: 2.9 million
  • Trend:  Decreasing
  • Habitat: Breeds in short- and mixed-grass prairies; winters in arid and semi-arid grasslands.

About the Chestnut-collared Longspur

The Chestnut-collared Longspur is an iconic species of mixed-grass prairie — the zone of prairie grasslands lying between the tallgrass in the east and shortgrass to the west — and favors sites grazed by bison or disturbed by fire. It is the smallest of North America's four longspur species, a group that includes the Thick-billed Longspur

In breeding plumage, male Chestnut-collared Longspurs sport a striking facial pattern of black, white, and buff framed, or “collared,” by a rich chestnut nape. Females, and males in nonbreeding season, are a much plainer combination of buff and gray with dusky streaks. These markings are the perfect camouflage for a species that seeks shelter amid grasses and forbs. 

Great Ground Adaptations

The Chestnut-collared Longspur and its relatives are named for the extra-long claws on their hind toes, a feature shared by other ground-dwelling grassland birds such as the Sprague's Pipit and Henslow's Sparrow. This long claw is thought to help these birds navigate uneven ground.

Songs and Sounds

The Chestnut-collared Longspur has a sweet, burbling song that is sometimes compared to that of the Western Meadowlark.

Listen here:


Paul Marvin, XC293743. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/293743.

Western Meadowlark:


Paul Marvin, XC698318. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/698318.

Breeding and Feeding

The male Chestnut-collared Longspur defines and defends his territory through aerial displays, simultaneously singing and flying in undulating circles with his tail spread. Other courtship displays include tail and wing fanning accompanied by raised head and bowing movements. 

Once mated, the pair begins to nest. The female excavates a shallow hollow on the ground, most often next to or within a clump of grasses. There, she builds a grass nest lined with softer materials, where she lays three to five eggs. The female longspur does most of the incubation while the male stands guard over their territory. If disturbed while on the nest, she takes flight and performs a flappy distraction display reminiscent of the injured-wing act deployed by nesting Killdeer or Piping Plovers. The aim is to lead potential predators away from the area. Several longspur pairs will also team up to mob predators including shrikes and harriers. If her nest is destroyed, a female will build another. This resilient species may try to re-nest as many as four times within a season! 

Once the young hatch, the male joins in their care, helping the female shade the young, joining in distraction displays, and aggressively attacking intruders. Both parents feed the rapidly growing young, which leave the nest within two weeks. The male then takes over feeding duties, which continue for almost another month, while the female begins a second brood. 

Although the Chestnut-collared Longspur is monogamous during the breeding season, the female often mates with other males, especially when starting a second brood. 

Ground Gleaners

Chestnut-collared Longspurs forage on the ground for insects (particularly grasshoppers), spiders, and seeds. They also glean food from low vegetation and sometimes make short flights to nab insects. During the breeding season, they feast on protein-rich invertebrates, then switch to seeds during the winter.

Male Chestnut-collared Longspur at nest. Photo by Norman Owen Tomalin/Alamy Stock Photo.

Region and Range

Chestnut-collared Longspur range. Map by ABC.

The Chestnut-collared Longspur becomes gregarious during the fall and winter, forming small flocks soon after breeding season. Medium-distance migrants, they leave nesting grounds on the Northern Great Plains for wintering areas in the south-central and southwestern United States and Chihuahuan Desert grasslands of north-central Mexico.

Conservation

Grassland species including the Chestnut-collared Longspur, Baird's Sparrow, and Dickcissel comprise one of the fastest-declining suites of birds native to North America, chiefly due to habitat loss on breeding and wintering areas. The Chestnut-collared Longspur has lost an estimated 85 percent of its population and much of its former breeding range since the mid-1960s. Partners in Flight includes it on its Yellow List of species of conservation concern. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies it as Vulnerable to extinction.

Help support ABC's conservation mission!

ABC's Migratory Birds Program is working to address these and other bird species declines through its BirdScapes approach, which aims to conserve geographically linked habitats on breeding grounds, wintering grounds, and migration stopover sites. ABC's Central Region staff are now working to improve habitat for the Chestnut-collared Longspur and many other grassland species throughout their life cycles.

In Mexico, ABC is working with partner Pronatura Noreste to implement sustainable land stewardship practices in the Valles Centrales BirdScape, where many Chestnut-collared Longspurs winter. This BirdScape also provides essential wintering habitat for the Long-billed Curlew, and is a permanent home to species such as the Aplomado Falcon.

Get Involved

Policies enacted by the U.S. Congress and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a huge impact on migratory birds. You can help shape these rules for the better by telling lawmakers to prioritize birds, bird habitat, and bird-friendly measures. To get started, visit ABC's Action Center.

Living a bird-friendly life can have an immediate impact on migratory birds in the United States. Doing so can be as easy as adding native plants to your garden, avoiding pesticides, and keeping cats indoors. To learn more, visit our Bird-Friendly Life page.

American Bird Conservancy and our Migratory Bird Joint Venture partners have improved conservation management on more than 8.5 million acres of U.S. bird habitat — an area larger than the state of Maryland — over the last ten years. That's not all: With the help of international partners, we've established a network of more than 100 areas of priority bird habitat across the Americas, helping to ensure that birds' needs are met during all stages of their life cycles. These are monumental undertakings, requiring the support of many, and you can help by making a gift today.

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