South Georgia pipit (Anthus antarcticus)

Also known as: Subantarctic pipit
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMotacillidae
GenusAnthus (1)
SizeLength: 16.5 cm (2)
Wingspan: 23 cm (3)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Although unremarkable in appearance, the South Georgia pipit is unique in being the only bird species endemic to the remote island of South Georgia (4), and the only passerine to occur in the Antarctic region (5). Like other Anthus species, it is a brown, streaked bird with a slender, blackish beak, long, pinkish legs and a particularly long hind claw on each foot (2) (6). The smallest of the island’s few terrestrial birds (7), it is generally dark brown with reddish-brown or buffy streaking above, and whitish below, with brown streaks (2). The lower belly is less heavily streaked, while the tail is blackish-brown with greyish-white edges (2) and has a notch in the end (6). The male and female South Georgia pipit are similar in appearance, while juveniles are generally more buffy in colour, particularly on the underparts (2). This species has a distinctive twittering song, given in flight (2) (7), and also a shorter song which is given from the ground. Its calls include a sharp tzip (2).

The South Georgia pipit is closely related to the Correndera pipit, Anthus correndera, of South America and the Falkland Islands. It is believed to have evolved from a common ancestor which arrived on South Georgia around one and a half million years ago (2) (3), and differs from the Correndera pipit in its larger size and more heavily streaked plumage (6).

Endemic to South Georgia, in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the South Georgia pipit is confined to a few rat-free parts of the mainland, and around 20 small, rat-free offshore islands and islets (2) (6) (7) (8).

The South Georgia pipit breeds in low-altitude tussac (Poa flabellata) grassland, often by streams and pools (2) (6) (8). During winter, it is found mainly along ice-free shorelines (2) (8).

The South Georgia pipit typically forages amongst dense grass (2) (3), often walking or running short distances and using the grass as cover (2) (6). Its diet consists mainly of small insects and other invertebrates, including springtails (Collembola species), beetles, flies and spiders, while small marine invertebrates are taken along the tideline in winter, particular when grassy areas are covered in snow (2) (3) (5) (7) (8).

Breeding takes place from mid-November to January or February, when the female lays three to five greenish-brown eggs in a deep, cup-shaped nest of dry grass and fine roots, lined with feathers. The nest is partly domed in shape and is built on the ground, usually within a grass tussock, or sometimes within a rock crevice (2) (3). Pairs may raise two broods in a season (2). Little is currently known about the development of the young in this species (2), but winter survival of juvenile birds is believed to be low (2) (8). Although the South Georgia pipit has very few natural predators, it may occasionally be taken by brown skuas (Catharacta lonnbergi) (2) (8) and is also vulnerable to introduced brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) (2) (4) (8) (9).

The greatest threat to the South Georgia pipit is predation by brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) (2) (8), which were introduced to South Georgia by sealers and whalers in the early 1800s and remain one of the greatest threats to its wildlife, predating ground-nesting birds and their eggs and chicks (4) (9). The South Georgia pipit is now found only in rat-free areas and is at risk from the accidental introduction of rats to offshore islands. In addition, there are fears that the retreat of South Georgia’s glaciers as a result of climate change may allow rats to invade the pipit’s remaining mainland habitats, which the glaciers currently enclose (2) (4) (8) (9) (10).

A further threat to this endemic bird may come from a rapid increase in the number of Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) using the island during the last 60 years. The increase in seals has resulted in the destruction of much of the tussac grass habitat in which the South Georgia pipit feeds and nests (2) (4). Overgrazing by introduced reindeer has also opened up the dense grassland habitat, giving greater access to predatory skuas (4). In addition to its limited distribution, the South Georgia pipit has a small population, estimated at just 3,000 to 4,000 pairs (2) (4) (8), and any increase in the severity of the threats to this species may warrant a more threatened status in the future (8).

A high priority for conservation on South Georgia is to eradicate rats from the island. The South Georgia Heritage Trust is planning an eradication programme to start in 2011, as part of a Habitat Restoration Project to remove rats and restore the island to its status as one of the most important seabird islands in the world (4) (9). In addition to increasing the number of seabirds breeding on the island, this project aims to save the South Georgia pipit, and the programme will be followed by monitoring to ensure the complete removal of rats and to assess any effects on other species (4). Precautions also need to be taken to prevent rats from reaching offshore islands, although the remote location makes this difficult to regulate in practice (8). A further conservation measure recommended for this unique endemic songbird is to carry out population surveys, in order to obtain up-to-date population estimates and monitor its population trends (8).

To find out more about conservation on South Georgia see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Stonehouse, B. (2002) Encyclopedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester.
  4. South Georgia Heritage Trust (August, 2010)
    http://www.sght.org/
  5. Soper, T. (2008) Antarctica: A Guide to the Wildlife. Bradt Travel Guides Ltd, UK.
  6. Ridgely, R.S. and Tudor, G. (2009) Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America: The Passerines. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
  7. Headland, R. (1984) The Island of South Georgia. Cambridge University Pres, Cambridge.
  8. BirdLife International (August, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=8458&m=0
  9. South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands (August, 2010)
    http://www.sgisland.gs/
  10. Cook, A.J., Poncet, S., Cooper, A.P.R., Herbert, D.J. and Christie, D. (2010) Glacier retreat on South Georgia and implications for the spread of rats. Antarctic Science, 22: 255-263.