Anthus spragueii (Audubon, 1844)
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Basis for Listing
The Sprague's pipit is a regional endemic species restricted to the northern Great Plains in the United States, and across the Prairie Provinces in Canada. In Minnesota's northwestern prairies, this species was still a common bird in the early 1900s. By the 1960s, Sprague's pipits were observed nearly every year, but sightings were limited to the Felton Prairie area in Clay County. Breeding season observations gradually declined at Felton Prairie between 1970 and 1987. This decline led to the species' classification as a state endangered species in 1984.
The Sprague's pipit is an inconspicuous, buff-colored, sparrow-sized bird. Distinctive features include a slender bill and prominent dark eyes in a pale face. The back and wings are heavily streaked in contrast to the whitish underparts, where streaking is confined to a faint necklace across the breast. Unlike most other pipits, this species does not pump its tail. The Sprague's pipit has a very distinctive song of a descending series of notes, which the male delivers from high overhead, upward of 100-150 m (328-492 ft.) above the ground.
Sprague's pipits prefer native mixed or tall-grass upland prairies, particularly tracts that have light to moderate levels of grazing. Occasional mowing or burning may also provide the short-grass habitat required by this species. Areas with taller, dense grassy vegetation are sought for nest sites. Heavily-grazed pastures without tall, native grasses do not provide suitable habitat. Sprague's pipits prefer native prairie, though non-native grasslands are sometimes used (Robbins and Dale 1999).
Biology / Life History
Sprague's pipits overwinter in grasslands in the southern United States and northern Mexico. They are thought to be solitary migrants and usually arrive on the breeding grounds in late April to mid-May. The size of this species' territories seem to vary widely, and birds may be closely packed in prime habitat. Females are the primary nest-builders, and they gather coarse and fine grasses to weave into a cup on the ground. Long grasses around the nest are often formed into a dome above the cup, and the nest entrances frequently include a short runway. The average clutch size is 4 eggs, which hatch after about 2 weeks. The young are blind and sparsely feathered, and remain in the nest for 9-12 days. Males are not known to feed either the incubating female or the nestlings. Sprague's pipits may raise 2 broods in a summer, before departing in late September for their wintering grounds. The species feeds almost entirely on arthropods, which are gleaned from the ground surface and grasses as the bird runs by. Seeds may also be eaten during the winter (Robbins and Dale 1999).
Conservation / Management
The preservation and management of remaining native prairie in western Minnesota is vital for the continued presence of Sprague's pipits in the state. Habitat requirements for Sprague's pipit, particularly native short-grasses, should be considered in management plans for prairies in areas where this species may occur. Efforts should be made to provide suitable habitat in both wet and dry years, as the birds may shift their use of habitat depending on moisture conditions. The remaining dry prairie on the Felton Prairie beach ridge should be managed with fire or light grazing to maintain this habitat type and prevent the encroachment of woody vegetation. Deferred rotational grazing may be an appropriate management technique to maintain or enhance Sprague's pipit habitat.
Conservation Efforts in Minnesota
Most remaining prairie habitat in western Minnesota has been surveyed for prairie birds, including Sprague's pipit. However, due to the rarity and sporadic occurrence of this species, inventories should be ongoing. Remaining native prairie and other grasslands, at Felton Prairie in particular, should be preserved and managed to maintain and enhance habitat for this species. A singing male Sprague's pipit found in Polk County in 1995, near the 1988 nesting area, suggests that this area may be important to the species. Management and restoration of potential Sprague's pipit habitat in this area of Polk County should be a high priority.
Lambeth, D. O., and S. O. Lambeth. 1988. Sprague's pipits nest in Polk County. The Loon 60(3):104-108.
Robbins, M. B., and B. C. Dale. 1999. Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii). Number 439 in A. Poole and F. Gill, editors. The birds of North America. The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.