Sprague's pipit  Anthus spragueii
ESA status: none

This species has been awaiting Endangered Species Act listing for
Years Days Hours Mins Secs
Sprague's pipit pc Greg Lavaty

Perched jauntily on a clump of grass, a small brown and white Sprague’s pipit surveys his grassland territory. Deciding he should let it be known once and for all who owns this patch of prairie, he takes to the air, circles over his territory singing his display song, then drops to the ground and levels off just before landing. He may continue to do this, over and over, for up to three hours – the longest territorial display of any bird species.

But these days, pipits are having a hard time finding a patch of grassland to call their own. They are obligate grassland birds, meaning they prefer native, open grasslands in both their breeding range up in Canada, Montana, and the Dakotas and in their wintering range across the bottoms of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, and down south into Mexico. They used to breed in Minnesota as well, but now are only rare visitors and have disappeared from parts of their range in both the U.S. and Canada. 

The Sprague’s pipit has experienced a 79 percent drop in population since 1966 when the Breeding Bird Survey first began to monitor bird population trends. Since then the pipit has been declining at an average rate of 4.1 percent per year and is considered by scientists to be one of the most rapidly declining songbirds in North America. This is especially alarming considering that their historic range encompassed 1 billion acres of North America. For such a wide-ranging bird to be in trouble, something seriously damaging must be happening to their habitat. Pipits do everything in the grassland; their main food source is arthropods, particularly grasshoppers, and some seeds, which they find in the tall grasses. They build cup-shaped nests of grass roofed with a dome of long, loose grass and raise their chicks in the cover of tall grasses. But the grassland is shrinking, and as it disappears, so too goes the pipit.

On the pipit’s breeding range, the Northern Plains, up to 99 percent of native grasslands have been lost to agriculture, development, and livestock grazing. On their wintering range, pipits are finding less abundant forbs and grass, less cover and food, and weed encroachment due to livestock grazing. And in between, in their migratory range, drainage of wetlands has resulted in a 50 percent loss of the wetland and wet meadow habitat they use. This little bird is very sensitive to habitat disturbances and will go out of its way to avoid human intrusions such as roads. When native grassland is plowed up for agriculture, the pipit disappears. Livestock grazing by non-native ungulates, namely cattle and sheep, has drastically altered the pipit’s habitat – the replacement of native bison with non-native ungulates may be the source of the greatest ecological damage to the Great Plains. Huge herds of bison used to wander the Great Plains; unlike modern grazers they moved frequently from place to place and might leave some grassland areas ungrazed for years. Their wallows and grazing patterns created a mosaic of microhabitats that supported a diverse array of plant and animal species. And while bison grazing, like fire, was once part of the prairie ecology, cattle grazing has been linked to landscape homogenization and brush encroachment. Weed, tree, or shrub encroachment onto native prairie will drive the pipit out; the combined effects of fire suppression and livestock grazing means that this is happening all too often. Climate change will continue to exacerbate all of the problems this small bird is facing.

The pipit’s territorial display has a message for us, as well; if we no longer hear the pipit’s display song, it means we have lost our native grasslands, and with them a rich vein of biodiversity. The pipit and its home are under siege from a myriad of threats, yet the pipit was denied listing under the Endangered Species Act. Without full legal protection for this imperiled bird, the grasslands may never again experience the hours-long serenade of the pipit.

Listen to the song of the Sprague's pipit.

photo credit: Greg Lavaty
sound credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Macaulay Library