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Sprague’s Pipit

Scientific name: Anthus spragueii
IUCN designation: Vulnerable
SARA designation: Threatened
COSEWIC designation: Threatened

Image of Sprague's Pipit in the grass

The elusive Sprague’s Pipit is the resident songbird of the AMASS project. It was named after ornithological illustrator Isaac Sprague, who was on the expedition that “discovered” the species for North American settlers. There is a recent movement to rename all bird species with honorific name descriptively. To learn more, visit Bird Names for Birds.

It is a small bird, comparable to a sparrow, with both adult males and females only 15-17 cm (6-7 in) in length, having wingspans of 25 cm (10 in)1,2. To camouflage with its grassland habitat, the Pipit’s plumage on its chest is predominately tan coloured, with brown and white on its wings, and a streaked crown3,4. Other distinguishing characteristics include its big black eyes and pale pink legs3. During the breeding season, male Sprague’s Pipits can be recognized by their elaborate aerial displays where they spiral upwards and circle down 92-152 m (300-500 ft); this is accompanied by their sleigh bell-like courtship song5.

The Sprague’s Pipit migrates from open, well-drained native prairie grassland in the Canadian Prairies and the Northern Great Plains of the US to its wintering grounds in the US Gulf Coast and northern Mexico1,6.

It is frequently called the “Goldilocks” of the prairies because of its very specific habitat requirements7. Sprague’s Pipits select grasslands that are of intermediate height, have a little or an intermediate amount of vegetation density, small amounts of bare ground and little to moderate depths of litter8,9.

Being a grassland specialist has made the Sprague’s Pipit very vulnerable to the degradation and loss of native prairie grasslands on their breeding grounds and the coastal prairie/desert grasslands found in their wintering grounds8. Habitat degradation, fragmentation, and pesticide use have led to a steady decline in the Canadian Pipit populations7,8. Between 1966 and 2005, these populations declined by 4.8% annually10.

Abiding by certain management practices to protect native grassland is key to conserving the microhabitats of Sprague’s Pipits. These include controlled grazing to reduce dense or tall vegetation, or prescribed burns to reduce the spread of exotic place species and reduce woody vegetation8.

To learn more, visit our Sprague’s Pipit StoryMap or the links below!

  1. Alberta’s Species at Risk Program – Sprague’s Pipit Conservation Management Plan
  2. Montana Field Guide – Sprague’s Pipit
  3. eBird – Sprague’s Pipit
  4. The Cornell Lab: Birds of the World – Sprague’s Pipit
  5. YouTube: American Bird Conservancy – Sprague’s Pipit Song
  6. IUCN Red List – Sprague’s Pipit
  7. Nature Saskatchewan – Sprague’s Pipit Brochure
  8. COSEWIC – Assessment and Status Report on the Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii) in Canada
  9. North Dakota Game and Fish – Sprague’s Pipit
  10. Species at Risk Act – Recovery Strategy for the Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii) in Canada

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