View Interactive Map

Sprague’s Pipit

Anthus spragueii
Overview
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

Summer visitant; considered to have bred in the northwestern counties in the late nineteenth century to 1990. Migratory visitant in the northwestern counties; a vagrant elsewhere. The Sprague’s Pipit was very rare during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

A grassland endemic species whose range primarily encompasses the Great Plains in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Montana, and North Dakota. It also occurs locally and rarely in South Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. The core of its breeding range is in the grasslands of southeastern Alberta (Figure 1).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 14

Officially classified as an Endangered Species in Minnesota and designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; assigned a Continental Concern Score of 14/20 by Partners in Flight.

Life History
Migration:

A short-distance migrant that winters primarily in the scattered grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico but also can be found in southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas south of the panhandle, and western Louisiana. During migration and in winter the species is secretive and flushes singly from the grass.

Food:

Feeds primarily on insects, including grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, and moths in the summer; its diet in other seasons includes seeds. Forages by walking in dense grass.

Nest:

Built on the ground near a clump of grass, often with a grass canopy.

Sprague’s Pipit Sprague’s Pipit. Anthus spragueii
© Dominic Sherony
Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the Sprague’s Pipit in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey, 2011–2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

Sprague’s Pipit was a resident in northwestern Minnesota in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Evidence from Roberts (1932) of records of the Sprague’s Pipit in the nineteenth century confirms its presence in the northwestern counties of Kittson, Marshall, and southeastern Otter Tail. Here it was found on expanses of native prairie that occupied the Glacial Lake Agassiz lakebed from the easternmost beach ridge to the Red River. Roberts also assumed from two unpublished anecdotal remembrances from observers in Lac qui Parle and Pipestone Counties that the Sprague’s Pipit was “formerly a summer resident throughout the western prairie region of Minnesota.” Notes in the Bell Museum of Natural History (BMNH) archives, however, do not provide evidence to warrant that assumption. Museum staff made trips in 1928, 1929, and 1930 to the northwestern counties to determine the presence of this species, which they found in Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Polk, and Red Lake Counties. The 1928 expedition found pipits on the native prairie in these five counties almost every day from June 10 to 24, recording a total of 50 birds (1–8 per day). These trips also produced the first breeding records: Kittson County, June 16, 1929 (nest with 6 eggs); and Marshall County, northeast of Warren, July 19, 1930 (“young birds awing but still being fed”) (BMNH archives). The farthest south that birds were recorded on these trips, however, was northern Wilkin County on May 30, 1929.

In the decades that followed those Bell Museum expeditions, just a few other observations of the Sprague’s Pipit have been recorded, all of which are within the northwestern Red River valley. On June 24, 1933, a nest was found with five eggs in Pennington County (Woolsey 1933), and on June 18, 1937, “a young pipit out of the nest but yet unable to fly more than a few feet” was found on virgin prairie land near Warren (Rysgaard 1937). The only other summer records were in 1946 near Averill, Clay County, and Foxhome, Wilkin County (Gunderson 1946).

No other subsequent information is available until the 1960s, when the Avifaunal Club and others began exploring the northwestern counties. Club members found displaying birds at the Felton Prairie in June 1961 and June 1962 (Huber 1961a; Pieper 1963) and in 1962 discovered two nests between Felton and Ulen, Clay County, on May 30 and June 9 (Huber 1962). One nest was an “abandoned, water-filled nest with one egg”; one nest was empty and “found near where female flushed from ground, male singing high overhead.” Felton became the “usual spot” for observing the Sprague’s Pipit, and from 1961 through 1988 the pipit was reported there almost every year (except for 1977 and 1982) at some time during the breeding season of mid-May to mid-August. Unfortunately, little description was given of the number of birds present or where on the Felton Prairie they were observed. The Felton Prairie encompasses three townships in Clay County (Felton, Flowing, and Keene), and the habitat is mixed from native prairie to mining. Ownership is also mixed and includes public units managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (Scientific and Natural Areas [SNAs] and Wildlife Management Areas) and private farmland and gravel pits. One survey of the Felton Prairie (Wyckoff 1985) did locate the pipit calling in the Bicentennial Unit of the Felton Prairie SNA, Sec. 5, Keene Township (T141R45). In the 1990s, very few reports of the pipit were from the Felton Prairie area: one on May 5, 1991 (Carlson 1991a); two on August 22, 1992 (Svingen 1992); one on July 25, 1994 (Wiens 1995); and one on June 25, 1995 (Wiens 1995). Although Felton Prairie dominated the records for the Sprague’s Pipit from 1961 to 1987 and the bird was assumed breeding at the site, the only confirmed nesting report is from 1962 (Huber 1962). Visited regularly by birders interested in observing a suite of grassland species, there were no pipit records from Felton Prairie after 1995 until 2012, when a bird was spotted on June 8 and was seen through June 29 by 40 observers (Tustison 2012).

All the breeding evidence for the Sprague’s Pipit in Minnesota is from the northwestern counties, starting with the first record in Kittson County (1929), then Marshall County (1930), then Pennington County (1933), back to Marshall County (1937), and then to Clay County (1962). The last nesting record for the state was in 1988 in Polk County in Tilden Township, Section 26 (T149R44, not T143, as given in the published account), when fledglings were captured (Lambeth and Lambeth 1988). Multiple observations indicate probable occupancy in only a few other county locations during the breeding season (late May, June, and July). On July 28–29, 1990, two displaying birds were observed in Roseau County (Otnes 1990) and seen by many others through September 1 (Eckert 1991; Carlson 1991a); the next year, three birds returned and were observed April 27–May 31, 1991 (Carlson 1991b). The Minnesota Biological Survey reported a singing bird on the Tympanuchus Wildlife Management Area, Polk County, on May 31–June 1, 1995 (Stucker 1996), and two observations from Roseau County in 1991 and 2009.

The Sprague’s Pipit also migrates throughout the state in small numbers from mid-April to late October. Records compiled from the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union (MOU) seasonal reports (1961–2015) for western counties (excluding Clay) show spring incidental observations from Lac qui Parle and Rock Counties and fall observations from Cottonwood County (2004 and October 18–19, 2013; Budde et al. 2014), Mahnomen, Martin, Polk, Rock, and Wilkin Counties (4 years from 1978 to 1998 and observed from September 29 to October 25). Single summer (June or August) observations from Lac qui Parle and Norman Counties could also be migrants. Other probable migrants are birds that were collected by Richard Oehlenschlager in Wadena County on September 22, 1961 (Huber 1961b), on September 23, 1970 (Green 1971), and on May 1, 1971 (Eckert and Egeland 1971). Records of vagrant birds were reported scattered throughout the eastern two-thirds of the state. Three fall migrants were reported from September 7–October 15 from the Duluth area, St. Louis County (Green 1970; Wigg 1980; Svingen 2007), and one spring migrant (Ruhme et al. 1980). Other vagrants reported from eastern counties occurred in Hennepin (Johnson 1979), Aitkin (Swanson 1988), Hubbard (Holle 1991), and Dakota Counties (Budde 2002).

Reports of the Sprague’s Pipit during the MNBBA were focused in just two areas (Figure 2, Table 1). A bird observed on Felton Prairie in 2012 from June 8 to June 29 (Chu 2013) was entered in the atlas database from blocks T141R45c (“probable”) and T141R45d (“possible”). These two blocks are in the northwest and the southwest quarters of Keene Township, Clay County, and the observations appear to be in sections 17, 18, 19, and 20. The bird was seen and heard displaying many times near the boundary of these two blocks. From the descriptions submitted to the MOU by 40 observers, usually only one bird was seen “skylarking,” though once “a similar bird was seen in flight” (MOU Web–Query Sightings Database). It is assumed that these observations represent one individual bird because of the lack of definitive evidence to the contrary.

A second record of a “singing male, apparently plucked out of midair by one of a pair of Peregrine Falcons that arrived on the scene 30 minutes after the pipit was discovered” was submitted to the atlas database from block T59R14d on June 27, 2013. This observation was made by Steve Wilson while surveying a 11.7 km2 grassland/wetland landscape on an old taconite tailings basin near Hoyt Lakes, St. Louis County. The record was accepted by the MOU Records Committee (Tustison 2015). This observation is somewhat similar to one listed previously for Aitkin County on June 26, 1988, of a bird “high over a nearby stubble field singing repeatedly.” The records from these two MNBBA locations (Figure 2) do not appear to be any different from other incidental observations in the historical record and do not indicate a breeding population.

*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.

Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the Sprague's Pipit in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

Print Map
Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed0 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Probable1 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Possible1 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Observed1 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Total3 (0.1%)0 (0.0%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the Sprague's Pipit observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding Habitat

The Sprague’s Pipit breeds on dry grassland, preferentially on native prairie with a varied vegetative structure and a few shrubs. The species prefers an intermediate grass height compared to the surroundings and avoids areas with bare ground or lesser spikemoss. They “are likely influenced by the size of the grassland patches and the amount of grassland in the landscape” (Jones 2010). Pipits do not nest on cropland and are uncommon on nonnative grasslands, where they “prefer ungrazed to lightly grazed pastures” (Smith 1996).

Population Abundance

Based on data from the federal Breeding Bird Survey, the population estimate for the United States and Canada is 1.2 million birds (Rosenberg et al. 2016). Trend results for BBS data from 1966 to 2015 are negative for all regions in the BBS survey area (Sauer et al. 2017). The most severe declines are in Canada, where the population has experienced an average annual decline of 3.53% per year. The trends in the province where the species occurs are as follows: Alberta (−3.30% per year), Saskatchewan (−3.60% per year, and Manitoba (−4.04% per year). The United States has far fewer BBS routes with Sprague’s Pipit detections, and the trend has essentially been stable. Throughout the BBS survey region in both southern Canada and the United States, the overall trend is a significant annual decline of 3.10% per year (Figure 3). Partners in Flight estimate that the population has declined 75% from 1970 to 2014 (Rosenberg et al. 2016).

The range of the Sprague’s Pipit also has contracted, especially in Canada. In the United States, the range has contracted on the periphery “west and north in North Dakota and Minnesota and to the north in Montana. Data on South Dakota are inconclusive” (Jones 2010). Historically, much of the decline “occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the short- and mixed-grass prairies were converted to agriculture” (Jones 2010).

Figure 3.

Breeding population trend for the Sprague’s Pipit in North America for 1966–2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017).

Conservation

The Sprague’s Pipit was listed in 1999 as Threatened in Canada; the listing was reaffirmed in 2010 (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada 2010). It is also protected under provincial wildlife acts in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba (Jones 2010). In the United States, the species was petitioned in 2008 for listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled in 2010 “that the petition presented substantial information indicating that listing the Sprague’s Pipit is warranted but precluded by higher listing priorities” so it is now just a candidate species (Jones 2010). The Sprague’s Pipit was listed as a Species of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Management Office in 2008 (Jones 2010). Partners in Flight assigned the pipit a Continental Concern Score of 14/20 and designated it a Yellow Watch List species (Rosenberg et al. 2016). Its declining population trend and threats to its breeding and wintering habitat were the most important factors prompting the high ranking and listing. (Yellow Watch List species are defined as those that “require constant care and long-term assessment” to prevent further declines [Rosenberg et al. 2016]). The Sprague’s Pipit was officially classified as an Endangered Species in Minnesota in 1984 (Coffin and Pfannmuller 1988) and has been designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2015).

Habitat loss has certainly been the most important challenge for this grassland endemic. Unfortunately climate change may also pose a significant risk. The National Audubon Society has classified the pipit a “climate endangered” species based on a modeling analysis that predicted the species may lose 100% of its current summer breeding range by the year 2080 (Langham et al. 2015National Audubon Society 2017). The future of Sprague’s Pipit, also known as the Prairie Skylark for its spectacular flight song display (Pearson 1917), is clearly in jeopardy.

  • Budde, Paul E. 2002. “The Fall Season (1 August to 30 November 2001).” Loon 74: 83–110.

  • Budde, Paul E., Doug W. Kieser, James W. Lind, William C. Marengo, and Andrew Nyhus. 2014. “The Fall Season: 1 August through 31 November 2013.” Loon 86: 67–99.

  • Carlson, Steve, Oscar L. Johnson, Kim Risen, and Dick Ruhme. 1991a. “The Spring Season (1 March to 31 May 1991).” Loon 63: 247–267.

  • Carlson, Steve, Oscar L. Johnson, Kim Risen, and Dick Ruhme. 1991b. “The Fall Season: 1 August to 30 November 1990.” Loon 63: 115–132.

  • Chu, Philip C. 2013. “Sprague’s Pipit in Clay County.” Loon 85: 43–44.

  • Coffin, Barbara A., and Lee A. Pfannmuller, eds. 1988. Minnesota’s Endangered Flora and Fauna. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSWIC). 2017. Assessment and Status Report on the Sprague’s Pipit Anthus spragueii in Canada. Ottawa: Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/cosewic/sr%5FSprague%27s%20Pipit%5F0810%5Fe%2Epdf

  • Eckert, Kim R. 1991. “Proceedings of the Minnesota Ornithological Records Committee.” Loon 63: 41–42.

  • Eckert, Kim R., and Paul Egeland. 1971. “The Spring Season – March 1, to May 31, 1971.” Loon 43: 80–89.

  • Green, Janet C. 1970. “Sprague’s Pipit on the North Shore of Lake Superior.” Loon 42: 115–116.

  • Green, Janet C. 1971. “1970–71 Winter Season.” Loon 43: 61–65.

  • Gunderson, Harvey L. 1946. “Chestnut-collared Longspur and Sprague’s Pipit.” Flicker 18: 65.

  • Holle, Dave. 1991. “Another Sprague’s Pipit Sighting.” Loon 63: 284.

  • Huber, Ronald L. 1961a. “The Nesting Season.” Flicker 33: 71–78.

  • Huber, Ronald L. 1961b. “The Fall Season.” Flicker 33: 114–118.

  • Huber, Ronald L. 1962. “The Summer Season.” Flicker 34: 80–85.

  • Johnson, Oscar L. 1979. “Early Migrant Sprague’s Pipit in Hennepin County.” Loon 51: 209.

  • Jones, Stephanie L. 2010. Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii) Conservation Plan. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/spraguespipit/SpraguesJS2010r4.pdf

  • Lambeth, David O., and Sharon O. Lambeth. 1988. “Sprague’s Pipits Nest in Polk County.” Loon 60: 104–108.

  • Langham, Gary M., Justin G. Schuetz, Trisha Distler, Candan U. Soykan, and Chad Wilsey. 2015. “Conservation Status of North American Birds in the Face of Future Climate Change.” PLoS One 10: e0135350. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135350

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2015. Minnesota’s Wildlife Action Plan 2015–2025. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Ecological and Water Resources. http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mnwap/index.html

  • National Audubon Society. 2017. The Climate Report: Sprague’s Pipit. http://climate.audubon.org/birds/sprpip/spragues-pipit

  • Otnes, Mark. 1990. “Sprague’s Pipit in Roseau County.” Loon 62: 167.

  • Pearson, T. Gilbert, ed. 1917. Birds of America. Vol. 3, Nature Lovers Library. New York: The University Society Inc.

  • Pieper, William R. 1963. “Sprague’s Pipit in the Felton Area.” Flicker 35: 68–70.

  • Roberts, Thomas S. 1932. The Birds of Minnesota. 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Rosenberg, Kenneth V., Judith A. Kennedy, Randy Dettmers, Robert P. Ford, Debra Reynolds, John D. Alexander, Carol J. Beardmore, Peter J. Blancher, Roxanne E. Bogart, Gregory S. Butcher, Alaine F. Camfield, Andrew Couturier, Dean W. Demarest, Wendy E. Easton, Jim J. Giocomo, Rebecca Hylton Keller, Anne E. Mini, Arvind O. Panjabi, David N. Pashley, Terrell D. Rich, Janet M. Ruth, Henning Stabins, Jessica Stanton, and Tom Will. 2016. Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee. http://www.partnersinflight.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/pif-continental-plan-final-spread-single.pdf

  • Ruhme, Dick, Don Bolduc, and Oscar L. Johnson. 1980. “Spring Season (March 1 – May 31, 1980).” Loon 52: 153–169.

  • Rysgaard, George N. 1937. “1937 Minnesota Nesting Records.” Flicker 9(3/4): 7–12.

  • Sauer, John R., Daniel K. Niven, James E. Hines, David J. Ziolkowski Jr., Keith L. Pardieck, Jane E. Fallon, and William A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 12.23.2015. Laurel, MD: U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/

  • Smith, Alan R. 1996. Atlas of Saskatchewan Birds. Regina: Saskatchewan Natural History Society.

  • Stucker, Steve. 1996. “Sprague’s Pipit in Polk County, 31 May – 1 June 1995.” Loon 68: 67–68.

  • Svingen, Peder H. 1992. “Sprague’s Pipit in Clay County.” Loon 64: 231.

  • Svingen, Peder H. 2007. “Proceedings of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee.” Loon 79: 50–57.

  • Swanson, Gary N. 1988. “Sprague’s Pipit in Aitkin County.” Loon 60: 187.

  • Tustison, Thomas A. 2012. “Proceedings of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee.” Loon 84: 107–112.

  • Tustison, Thomas A. 2015. “Proceedings of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee.” Loon 87: 95–97.

  • Wiens, Terry. 1995. “The Summer Season: 1 June to 31 July 1994.” Loon 67: 17–37.

  • Wigg, Melba. 1980. “Sprague’s Pipit at Duluth.” Loon 52: 191–192.

  • Woolsey, Ralph. 1933. “The 1933 Nesting Season.” Flicker 5: 26–47.

  • Wyckoff, Ann Marie. 1985. Population Assessment Calcarius ornatus (Chestnut-collared Longspur), Felton Prairie, Minnesota. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Natural Heritage and Nongame Research Program.