Small, ground-dwelling oscine with "horns" - occipital feather tufts - which can be raised or lowered but are usually erect in males. Males slightly larger and darker than females. Basic plumage: nape, back, rump, and dorsal surfaces of the rectrices and remiges are shades of brown streaked with dusky brown to black. Breast and abdomen cinnamon to white. Head strikingly marked with black lores, cheek patches, the occipital feather tufts, and breast patch. Geographic variation is most obvious in body size and coloration, especially of the eyebrow stripe, throat, and ear coverts which vary from white to yellow. The variation in back color is strongly correlated with the color of the local soil. During winter, often occurs in mixed flocks with other species such as longspurs, Snow Buntings, and pipits (Beason 1995).
For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.
Western Hemisphere Range
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In the Bozeman area, normal migration periods are March 5 to April 25 and September 25 to November 1.
Open, generally barren country; avoids forests. Prefers bare ground to grasses taller than a few cm (Beason 1995).
In winter, mostly seeds. During the breeding season, adults eat mostly seeds but feed insects to their young. Adults take more insects during the spring and fall than at other times, perhaps to compensate for the energetic demands of breeding and molt (Beason 1995).
May nest on marshy soil but generally prefers, throughout its range, bare ground such as plowed or fall-planted fields. Digs a nest cavity or may use a natural depression. Eggs are ovate; ground color varies from dark pearl gray to pale gray, and are spotted. Clutch size varies 2 to 5 eggs (Beason 1995). Nests in Teton County have been found from April 10 to July 19. Nests with eggs as early as May 10 have been found in the Bozeman area.