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Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit DrawingThe Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii) is a small ground nesting songbird that is endemic to the Canadian prairies and northern Great Plains of the United States. Although the species is relatively common in suitable habitat over much of its range, populations have been declining in many areas. This, coupled with a relative lack of information on the biology and management of this species, has led to the inclusion of the Sprague's Pipit on the Blue List of species that may be at risk in Alberta.

Accounts from throughout the range of the Sprague's Pipit have emphasized the close association of this species with native prairie, and a strong aversion to introduced grasses and cultivated land. In southern Alberta the species was 15 times more common on surveys in native fescue or mixed-grass prairie than in agricultural areas or tame (seeded) pastures. In Alberta's parkland, inventories of 16 upland habitat types found Sprague's Pipits only in idle native grasslands. The species is absent from dense nesting cover planted for waterfowl habitat in this area, and other areas of the Canadian prairies and northern Great Plains.

On native range, the Sprague's Pipit is often one of the most common grassland songbirds, with reported densities of 1.3 to 46 pairs/100 hectares. The species apparently prefers areas that are intermediate in terms of vegetation height and litter depth in both prairie and parkland regions of the Canadian prairies, and tends to avoid areas with excessive shrub cover. The highest abundances are usually attained on ungrazed to moderately-gazed native range.

The earliest date for arrival of Sprague's Pipits on the breeding grounds in Alberta is 22 April although it has been reported that the mean arrival date for Camrose was 12 May. Unlike most other grassland birds, Sprague's Pipits rarely sing from the ground. Rather, males deliver the song during extended display flights that are high above the nesting habitat. When on the ground, both males and females are difficult to approach, and flush far ahead of the observer or run through the grass to avoid detection. The elusive nature of the Sprague's Pipit makes close observations of behavior difficult to collect, and the breeding biology of this species is poorly understood.

Observations of nesting are also scant, because the nest is often placed in a depression below ground level, is well-concealed with a grass roof, and is difficult to locate. Sprague's Pipits prefer to nest in dense, grassy, and relatively tall vegetation with low density of forbs and little bare ground. Selection of these areas probably maximizes protection against predation and heat stress.

Nest building has been observed during the second week of May in Manitoba. Four- or five-egg clutches are typical, but clutches of six eggs have been reported. Some females raise two broods in a season, starting the second nest as much as 21 days after successful fledging of the first. The frequency of double broods is not known, but is probably low. Incubation, conducted exclusively by the female, lasts from 10 to 11 days. The female is also primarily, if not exclusively, responsible for tending to the chicks. 

The Sprague's Pipit is almost entirely insectivorous, with seeds constituting less than three percent of the adult diet during the breeding season. Insect foods vary seasonally, with beetles comprising over 40% of the adult diet in May, and grasshoppers increasing from four percent in May to 91% in September. Grasshoppers also constitute most of the nestling diet (55% in July, 87% in August), with most of the remainder being lepidopteran larvae, leaf hoppers, spiders and hymenopterans.

Sprague's Pipits undergo a pre-basic moult (partial in juveniles, complete in adults) from late July through August, and depart for the wintering grounds in mid-September. The species migrates through the Great Plains to the wintering grounds in the southern United States and northern Mexico. 

Reprinted from Alberta Wildlife Status Report No. 10 (1997), with permission from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

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