Appearance. In breeding season, the male chestnut-collared longspur shows off a jet-black crown, chest, and belly. He also has buffy yellow cheeks and throat, white stripes above and below the eyes, and the namesake chestnut nape. Females and non-breeding males are streaked brown-gray above, mottled below, and display a faint chestnut nape. The birds look sparrow-like except for a thick, conical bill and a white tail with a dark triangle in the center. As members of the longspur family, they are named for an elongated claw on the hind toe.
Range and Habitat. The chestnut-collared longspur requires dry, upland, shortgrass prairie. Historically, this species followed both bison and fire, which left behind an ideal habitat of short grass interspersed with clumps of long grass. Today, prairie managed with fire or mowing and lightly grazed pasture ground provide suitable habitat for this species.
Western Minnesota is at the far eastern edge of the species' range, which encompasses the Great Plains and desert grasslands of the southern United States and northern Mexico.
Breeding. Male chestnut-collared longspurs put on a delightful breeding display, showing off to females with a 30-foot-high flight into the air followed by undulating, descending circles while fluttering their wings and singing a melodic warble-trill song that resembles a western meadowlark's. Chestnut-collared longspurs nest on the ground in a grass cup lined with animal hair and plant down. Females incubate eggs for about 10 days, and juveniles can fly about two weeks after hatching.
Behavior and Migration. Chestnut-collared longspurs feed on the ground, walking in search of insects, such as grasshoppers, beetles, and ants. Longspurs also forage for seeds, with a preference for grasses.
Between March and April, chestnut-collared longspurs begin arriving at breeding grounds in eastern Montana, the Dakotas, southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In September, these birds depart in flocks to wintering grounds in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico.
Status. Throughout its range, the chestnut-collared longspur population has declined more than 87 percent since the 1960s. This is due primarily to the loss of native prairie habitat. In Minnesota, chestnut-collared longspurs are listed as a state endangered species. By the early 1900s, according to T.S. Roberts' The Birds of Minnesota, the species was restricted to areas of native prairie and pastureland. By 1932, only a few isolated colonies remained. Traverse County had a breeding colony as late as 1985. Today, the best place to see a chestnut-collared longspur in Minnesota is the Felton Prairie Scientific and Natural Area in Clay County. Other far western Minnesota counties may also harbor a stray longspur in appropriate habitat.
Tom Carpenter, freelance writer