BIRD OF THE WEEK: November 11, 2016 SCIENTIFIC NAME: Anthus spraqueii
POPULATION: 1.2 million
TREND: Decreasing
HABITAT: Breeds and winters in large areas of native short- and mixed-grass prairie

Sprague's Pipit map, NatureServeSprague's Pipit, also known as the Missouri Skylark, is often an inconspicuous and solitary species. But on its breeding grounds, the male bird becomes a star, staging vocal flight displays that can last from 30 minutes to three hours at a time. This aerial breeding display is thought to be the longest of any bird species.

Habitat loss, mainly the conversion of native prairie for agriculture, has led to rapid declines in this species and other at-risk grassland birds such as the Chestnut-collared Longspur and Long-billed Curlew.

Like Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit is very sensitive to human disturbance, disappearing rapidly when people alter its habitat. It has experienced a 79 percent drop in population since 1966, when the Breeding Bird Survey first began to monitor bird population trends.


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Pipit's Prairie Song

On its breeding grounds, the male Sprague's Pipit circles hundreds of feet above the prairie, singing a lovely, cascading song. Once it finds a mate, the male bird defends a breeding territory and continues to spend up to three hours a day performing defensive flights and calls. These displays are often the only signs of this elusive bird.

The female remains inconspicuous as she builds her nest on the ground, usually in a slight depression or tucked into the side of a clump of grass. The nest is a woven cup of dry stems, sometimes lined with finer grass. Somewhat resembling the nest of the Ovenbird, Sprague's Pipit nests often have an arch over the top and an entrance at the side.

Sprague's Pipit nest, Wikimedia Commons

Sprague's Pipit nest seen through the nest entrance. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Instead of approaching directly, adult birds land several feet away and walk to the nest. The female does most of the incubation, flushing only when approached within a few feet. She also feeds the hatchlings, which leave the nest once they can move around.

A ground-dwelling bird, Sprague's Pipit eats mainly insects and seeds, which it gleans while foraging alone through the grass. If it spots a predator, the bird remains motionless, relying on its cryptic plumage to avoid detection.

Protecting a Prairie Icon

Roughly 85 percent of grassland birds that breed in the northern Great Plains of the United States spend their winters in Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert, including Sprague's Pipit. As habitat on both their breeding and wintering grounds disappears, grassland species have become one of the fastest-declining suites of birds native to North America.

ABC is partnering with farmers, ranchers, and government agencies to help this species across its range. For example, working with our partner Pronatura Noreste, ranchers in Mexico are now strategically moving cattle from pasture to pasture, mimicking natural processes that maintain habitat for grassland birds.

On the breeding grounds, ranchers are also a key to the survival of this species as well as Long-billed Curlew and other grassland birds; ABC's Cheryl Mandich explains.


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