BIRD OF THE WEEK: March 23, 2018 SCIENTIFIC NAME: Rhynchophanes mccownii
HABITAT: Shortgrass prairie; also found in tundra and other open areas
The clear, sweet voice of the Thick-billed Longspur rings out in the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains, joining with other prairie birds to create a symphony of song. Sadly, the music of the grasslands is diminished every year, as native prairies are converted to croplands — and as the population of birds falls in response.
The Thick-billed Longspur has lost 4 percent of its population per year over the last 50 years, resulting in a cumulative loss of 88 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Other grassland birds, including Horned Lark and Sprague's Pipit, are experiencing similar declines.
“These small creatures make their stand in the face of great powers transforming their prairie world,” wrote Trevor Herriot in his 2009 book, “Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds.”
The Thick-billed Longspur, like the Chestnut-collared Longspur, is named for the long claw on its hind toe. This elongated claw, or “hallux,” is thought to help these ground-dwelling birds walk over uneven vegetation. This species' former common name was the McCown's Longspur.
Although both Thick-billed and Chestnut-collared Longspurs favor shortgrass prairies, Thick-billed prefers drier grasslands, particularly with patches of open ground. Horned Lark and Burrowing Owl favor similar habitats and are often associated with these longspurs, particularly in the grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert where many spend the winter.
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Like Lark Bunting and several other grassland species, the Thick-billed Longspur males make dramatic aerial displays to claim territories and attract mates. With fluttering wings, the male bird rises to 20 to 30 feet above his prospective territory. Then, descending slowly, the bird stretches out his wings to show off their bright white undersides and sings his warbling song.
The birds often repeat this display over the course of the breeding season as a defense of their territories. Once paired off, the female longspur builds an open-cup nest of grasses in a shallow depression on the ground.
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 the Thick-billed Longspur. 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.
As a result, the Thick-billed Longspur is a focus species of ABC's Migratory Birds Program, which includes the Rio Grande Joint Venture as a vital partner. Through our BirdScapes approach, we aim to conserve geographically linked habitats on breeding grounds, wintering grounds, and stopover sites in between.
On the breeding grounds, ABC's work with ranchers is a key to the survival of the Thick-billed Longspur, Long-billed Curlew, and other grassland birds. Efforts with ranchers on the birds' wintering grounds are also essential; 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.
These bird-friendly grazing practices benefit many other migratory birds, including Baird's Sparrow and Mountain Plover, as well as Worthen's Sparrow — an endangered species found only in the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands.
You can help the Thick-billed Longspur — and all bird species — by buying organic produce. Pesticides used on agricultural crops, such as neonicotinoids, are known to kill songbirds and aquatic life. Chlorpyrifos is one of the most-used and most-lethal insecticides, and it's applied to a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other conventionally grown crops.
Avoiding the use of pesticides in your own home and garden is another common-sense practice that will benefit all birds — as well as wildlife and people.
You can also stand up for adequate funding and strong laws to protect birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act ― cornerstone legislation that has protected birds for 100 years — is now under attack in Congress.
Another way to help is to support American Bird Conservancy with a donation. Your gift helps us ensure a future for the Thick-billed Longspur and other birds of the Americas!