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Sprague's Pipit Life History



Sprague’s Pipits are endemic nesters in North America’s northern Great Plains, where they breed mostly in native mixed-grass prairie, usually in vegetation no more than 6–12 inches tall. They tolerate some grazing of this habitat but do not nest where it is overgrazed. Most nesting territories have scattered shrubs and relatively little bare ground. Key grass species in their nesting habitats include blue grama, junegrass, fescues, and various species of wheatgrass (crested, slender, northern, western), along with foxtail barley, Canby blue, speargrasses, salt grass, plains muhly, and threadleaf sedge. Sprague’s Pipits do not nest in cropland and are uncommon or absent in non-native grasslands. Migrant birds are seldom detected; they use similar habitats but also utilize crops such as alfalfa, wheat, and soy. On wintering grounds in Mexico and border areas of the southern U.S., they use both native and non-native grasslands with limited shrub cover, including some shortgrass environments, even occasionally athletic fields and heavily grazed pastures.

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Sprague’s Pipits consume mostly insects and other arthropods during the breeding season. They capture these by walking briskly along on the ground and gleaning seeds or seizing insects in the bill. Most forage by themselves, but sometimes several forage in the same area. On occasion, they capture insects while flying, usually snatching them from vegetation too high to reach from the ground. They eat crickets, grasshoppers, weevils, beetles, bugs, leafhoppers, ants, flies (especially sawflies), butterflies, and moths (and larvae), along with spiders. They swallow prey whole, without removing wings or legs or softening the prey. Especially in the nonbreeding season, Sprague’s Pipits also eat seeds of grasses and forbs, but little is known about the winter ecology and diet of the species.

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Nest Placement


The nest is set on the ground in an area of relatively tall vegetation, often nearly a foot tall.

Nest Description

Females build a cup nest of grasses, using finer grasses as lining, and then construct a dome canopy by pulling down live grasses over the nest and weaving them together with dead grasses. Nests measure about 3.3 inches across and 1.9 inches tall (excluding canopy), with the interior cup about 3 inches across and 1.5 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1-3 broods
Incubation Period:12-15 days
Nestling Period:9-14 days
Egg Description:Pale whitish with brown blotches.
Condition at Hatching:Downy and helpless.
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Ground Forager

When Sprague’s Pipits return to breeding grounds from the wintering areas, males establish nesting territories, which they also use for foraging. Males mark their territory in part with song flights, performed up to 300 feet in the air over a relatively small (less than a quarter-acre) area. Territories range from 2.5 acres to about 16 acres in size. Males occasionally chase neighboring males in flight to maintain territorial boundaries. Both parents share incubation and chick-rearing duties. Males rarely perform the aerial display when young are in the nest, but they often begin again after the young fledge. After the nesting season, Sprague’s Pipits may gather in small flocks between July and early September before migrating southward. Their migration occurs at least partly during daylight hours. During the nonbreeding season, Sprague’s Pipits appear to be solitary, but in areas with plentiful food, small flocks may gather.

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According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Sprague's Pipit numbers declined by 3.1% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 79% during that time. The decline appears to have accelerated during 2005-2015. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 1.4 million and rates the species a 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, placing it on the Yellow Watch List for species with population declines. If current rates of decline continue, Sprague’s Pipit will lose another 50% of its population by 2043. Vast areas of this species’ former breeding range no longer have nesting Sprague’s Pipits because of conversion from prairie to cropland and pasture. Studies indicate that limited livestock grazing is beneficial to Sprague’s Pipits, which evolved in an environment grazed by plains bison. The grazing limits the growth of shrubs and stimulates new growth of grasses and forbs. However, excessive grazing eliminates the pipit’s habitat. Conservation of large areas of native grasslands is key for the survival of Sprague’s Pipit, and improving grazing management on rangeland is also important in both Mexico and the United States. Planted grasslands (of native species) can also provide nesting habitat.

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Davis, Stephen K., Mark B. Robbins and Brenda C. Dale. (2014). Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

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

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