Sprague's pipit, Shoe Lake West, SK (Photo by Stephen Davis)
The Sprague’s pipit, a type of songbird, is known for having the longest known flight display of any other bird species. Males often display for about half an hour while airborne, and one was even recorded displaying for three hours. Their display includes flying 50 to 100 metres off the ground, singing a descending series of slurred notes that sound like “zeer,” while gliding, flapping their wings and plummeting down toward the ground.
What does it look like?
Often mistaken for a sparrow, Sprague’s pipit is a medium-sized songbird that is brown and striped with a thin bill and white outer tail feathers. Females and males are similar in appearance.
Where is it found?
The Sprague’s pipit breeds from southern and central Alberta, to southwestern Manitoba and south to southern Montana, northern South Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. It spends winters in southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
This species breeds and winters in open grassland with very few to no trees or shrubs. Sprague’s pipit is considered a native grassland specialist and prefers to nest in intact prairies with moderate levels of grazing. The species will sometimes use tame pastures or hayfields, but experiences reduced reproductive success in these areas.
What is this species’ conservation status?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks the Sprague’s pipit as vulnerable and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed it as threatened. According to results of the North American Breeding Bird Survey, this species’ population declined by around three per cent per year between 1966 and 2015, adding up to an overall decline of 79 per cent.
Threats to Sprague’s pipit include loss and fragmentation of its native prairie habitat, nest predation, pesticides and climate change. Because this species is so sensitive to habitat changes and requires large blocks of intact native grasslands, it is a useful indicator of prairie health.
What is NCC doing to conserve habitat for this species?
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) owns and protects several properties where Sprague’s pipit has been found. In Manitoba, these include the Fort Ellice property, Maple Lake property, which is in the Oak Lake Sandhills and Wetlands Natural Area, and the Yellow Quill Prairie Preserve. In Saskatchewan, Sprague’s pipit has been seen on NCC’s Mather Lake, Edenwold Complex, Old Man on His Back Prairie Heritage and Conservation Area, Wideview and Asquith North Complex properties. In Alberta, Sprague’s pipit has been found on all of NCC’s grassland natural areas, which include properties such as Haugen, Stebanuk and Sandstone Ranch. Most of NCC’s properties are grazed by cattle or bison. Grazing is an important tool for managing vegetation height, and Sprague’s pipit prefers vegetation of an intermediate height and density. Without grazing, vegetation would become too tall and dense, excluding the species from otherwise usable habitat.