Sprague’s pipit (Anthus spragueii)

GenusAnthus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 15 – 17 cm (2)
Average weight: 25 g (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Famed for its extravagant territorial display, the male Sprague’s pipit has the longest aerial display of any bird (3). An otherwise indistinct species, Sprague’s pipit has a typical pipit colouration, with strongly streaked blackish-brown upperparts, and a buffish-white breast and belly. On the prominently streaked head a buff stripe extends above the eye, while the wings and tail are dark brownish with a white tinge. Like other pipits, the sexes are alike, but juveniles have more obvious streaking on the head, white wingbars, and a pale trim to the feathers, giving a slightly scaled appearance (2). Sprague’s pipit has a slender bill and the tail and legs are long, and in adaptation to its terrestrial lifestyle the hindclaw is notably large (2) (4). As Sprague’s pipit is highly secretive, and rarely seen on the ground, it is more often identified by its song of jingling phrases, descending scales and explosive squeaks (2).

During summer months, Sprague’s pipit breeds in the Northern Great Plains of south-east Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and south-west Manitoba in Canada, and north and central Montana, western North Dakota and north and west South Dakota, and historically in north-west Minnesota in the United States. It winters primarily in inland areas of the southwestern United States, southwards to Guerrero and Veracruz in northern Mexico (5) (6).

Sprague’s pipit inhabits open grasslands, preferring well-drained areas, with medium height grasses of moderate thickness, and a low density of trees and shrubs (5) (6). Whilst migrating, Sprague’s pipit may also occasionally be found in cultivated fields of alfalfa, soybean and wheat (3).

In common with other pipits, Sprague’s pipit is a somewhat inconspicuous, ground-dwelling bird, typically foraging alone throughout the day (2) (3). Arthropods are gleaned from the ground whilst walking or running through vegetation, although seeds may also be eaten during the winter (3) (4). If a predator is seen, rather than fleeing, Sprague’s pipit will often remain motionless, relying on its cryptic plumage to avoid detection (4). 

A short-distance migratory species, Sprague’s pipit spends winter in the hotter, southernmost parts of its range, before arriving back at the northern breeding grounds around the third week of April. It is at this time that the renowned territorial display of the male Sprague’s pipit can be seen. Rising 50 to 100 metres from the ground in an undulating motion, the male bird circles over its territory for up to three hours at a time, all the while flapping and singing a display song (3) (7) (8). On pairing up, the male bird defends a breeding territory, spending up to three hours a day performing defensive flights and calls (4). A cup shaped nest of fine, woven grasses is constructed on the ground by the female, and an average clutch of four or five oval, greyish coloured eggs are incubated by the female for around 14 days, while the male regularly brings food back to the nest (3) (4) (6) (7). The young chicks will remain in the nest for some nine to 14 days, being raised on a diet of grasshoppers and crickets, before fledging through June and August (3) (6).      

Historically widespread across North America’s prairies, today Sprague’s pipit is in serious decline, primarily as a result of habitat loss. This began at the end of the 19thcentury, which saw the most significant conversion of native grasslands to agriculture (5) (6) (7). Today, only 25 percent of Canadian grasslands and 20 percent of Aspen parklands remain, much of which is being further degraded through overgrazing by livestock and fragmentation (5). Consequently, Sprague’s pipit has suffered large declines across its range, and is continuing to decline at an alarming rate (6). It has also been extirpated from Minnesota and much of Alberta and Manitoba. As a ground dwelling species with a strong affinity to native plant species, Sprague’s pipit has adapted to native grassland vegetation and has declined due to the introduction of competitive Eurasian plant species that have reduced nesting habitat (5) (6) (7). Fire suppression, oil and gas exploration, high levels of cattle grazing, road construction and haying activity during summer months, which destroy nests prior to chick fledging, have also been identified as further threats to Sprague’s pipit (5) (6). 

Sprague’s pipit is benefiting from efforts aiming to preserve its prairie habitat, including the burning of grasslands through artificial fires.  It is also protected under Canadian law as Threatened, and is under review as a Threatened species in the United States (6) (9). Sprague’s pipit is also found in a number of protected areas, including Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area and Grasslands National Park in Canada, and there is increasing interest in protecting prairies using native prairies (6) (9). 

For more information on bird conservation in the United Sates, see:

For more information on Sprague’s pipit, see:

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

Authenticated (02/06/2010) by Stephanie L Jones, Nongame Migratory Bird Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Denver, Colorado.

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2009)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Robbins, M.B. and Dale, B.C. (1999) Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii), The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  4. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. BirdLife International (March, 2010)
  6. WildEarth Guardians. (2008) Petition to list the Sprague’s pipit (Anthus spragueii) under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. WildEarth Guardians, New Mexico. Available at:
  7. The National Audubon Society (March, 2010)
  8. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (March, 2010)
  9. Species at Risk Public Registry (March, 2010)