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American Pipit Life History



American Pipits nest in tundra in the far North, including grassy meadows and dwarf shrub habitat. Farther south, they nest at high elevations including alpine and subalpine meadows, boulder fields, and fell fields (scree slopes above timberline. In these areas, pipits are often found near nesting Horned Larks but usually in drier areas. During spring and fall migration, pipits select the most similar open habitats, including agricultural fields (in stubble or plowed), turf farms, sports complexes with open grassy areas, beaches, mudflats, dry river or lake beds, and the shores of lakes and rivers. Wintering pipits likewise use open areas, generally places free of deep snow or ice. They also sometimes wade into shallow water, hunting insect larvae.

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American Pipits eat mostly insects and their larvae, including mayflies, caddisflies, lacewings, stoneflies, dragonflies, moths, butterflies, grasshoppers, ants, aphids, and beetles. They also take marine worms and even small crustaceans in marine habitats. Spiders and ticks form a smaller part of the diet, as do seeds and other plant matter, especially in fall and winter. During the nesting season, pipits forage alone, but after breeding, flocks of dozens or hundreds forage together. Foraging birds walk quickly, strutting and often changing direction as they inspect the ground and low vegetation for food. They sometimes catch aerial insects in short sallying flights and consume prey whole, sometimes removing the wings first.

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Nest Placement


Nests are always on the ground in meadows, scree fields, tussocks, or similar open environments, usually in a spot that is partly sheltered by vegetation, earth, or rock.

Nest Description

Females construct the cup nest, with help from the male, who brings nest material to her. She fashions the nest of dried grasses and sedges, with a lining of finer grasses and sometimes hair or feathers. The nest cup measures about 2.8 inches across (inside diameter) and 1.5 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-7 eggs
Egg Description:Whitish with dense dark brown spotting.
Condition at Hatching:Downy and helpless.
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Ground Forager

Unmated males arrive on the nesting grounds early (often while snow is on the ground) and sing while in flight. In these displays, they rise over 100 feet in the air, then parachute earthward in a spiral, with tail fanned and cocked upward, and wings spread. As in other songbirds, the song serves both to attract mates and to mark territory. In some cases, mated pairs arrive together in nesting areas. Males are highly territorial, and rival males often clash early in the nesting season, chasing each other in flight or performing one of two displays: one involves sidling toward each other with wings drooped and tail bobbing; in the other, the wings are drooped and tail held upward but not moved. Females sometimes also chase intruders. The size of a territory probably depends on the abundance of food: territories as small as 1/3 acre to as large as 5 acres have been recorded. Males bring food to incubating females, which receive the meals, wings fluttering, away from the nest site. Spring snowstorms sometimes force pipits to abandon or suspend nesting and move downslope temporarily. Foraging birds hurry through terrestrial habitats, looking side to side for food and bobbing the head as they walk, often changing direction as they proceed. They sometimes perch on rocks or small shrubs when not searching for food. Walks or runs while pecking at the ground or gleaning from low vegetation, frequently changing direction; occasional short flights from ground or boulders to pursue prey. Feeds in large flocks in fall and winter.

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Low Concern

American Pipits are still very common, but according to Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan their populations have fallen by 30% since 1970. Partners in Flight estimates a global population of 20 million individuals and ranks them 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Clearing of forests increased habitat for American Pipits following the arrival of European settlers but beginning in the late twentieth century widespread reforestation began to occur, particularly in the northeastern U.S. Draining of wetlands has reduced migration and winter habitat for American Pipits. Global climate change is bringing about rapid changes in both Arctic and alpine breeding habitats, with scrub vegetation and treeline predicted to shift northward and upslope, reducing habitat available to nesting birds.

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Hendricks, Paul and N. A. Verbeek. (2012). American Pipit (Anthus rubescens), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Rosenberg, K.V., J. A. Kennedy, R. Dettmers, R. P. Ford, D. Reynolds, J. D. Alexander, C. J. Beardmore, P. J. Blancher, R. E. Bogart, G. S. Butcher, A. F. Camfield, A. Couturier, D. W. Demarest, W. E. Easton, J. J. Giocomo, R. H. Keller, A. E. Mini, A. O. Panjabi, D. N. Pashley, T. D. Rich, J. M. Ruth, H. Stabins, J. Stanton, and T. Will. 2016. Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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