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Montana Field Guides

Sprague's Pipit - Anthus spragueii

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G3G4
State Rank: S3B
(see State Rank Reason below)

Agency Status
PIF: 1

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Copyright by: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, all rights reserved.
State Rank Reason (see State Rank above)
Although population trends in Montana appear to be relatively stable in recent years, populations have been in decline over the long run and the species faces threats from covertype conversion, overgrazing, exotic plant invasions, altered fire regimes, and mowing prior to fledging of young.
  • Details on Status Ranking and Review
    Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii) Conservation Status Review
    Review Date = 12/20/2011
    Population Size

    ScoreU - Unknown


    Range Extent

    ScoreG - 200,000-2,500,000 km squared (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles)

    Comment274,683 square kilometers based on Natural Heritage Program range maps that appear on the Montana Field Guide

    Area of Occupancy

    ScoreU - Unknown


    Long-term Trend

    ScoreD - Moderate Decline (decline of 25-50%)

    CommentGrassland covertypes have been drastically reduced (25-50%) in Montana since European arrival.

    Short-term Trend

    ScoreE - Stable. Population, range, area occupied, and/or number or condition of occurrences unchanged or remaining within ±10% fluctuation

    CommentBreeding Bird Survey (BBS) data for Montana is of moderate credibility and shows a significant trend of +8.0% per year or 116% increase per decade. Trends in surrounding states are mixed up and down. BBS data for prairie potholes region as a whole is of high credibility with a significant trend of +1.0% per year or 10% increase per decade. Trends probably best recognized as stable for now.


    ScoreB - Moderate and imminent threat. Threat is moderate to severe and imminent for a significant proportion (20-60%) of the population or area.

    CommentConversion of native prairie to agricultural lands and overgrazing are biggest threats to the species, but exotic plant invasions, altered fire regimes, and harvesting grasses prior to fledging also represent threats.

    SeverityModerate - Major reduction of species population or long-term degradation or reduction of habitat in Montana, requiring 50-100 years for recovery.

    CommentWhen native prairie sod is busted it would take a long time to recover to useful habitat. Invasive plant species are reducing habitat quality.

    ScopeModerate - 20-60% of total population or area affected

    CommentGrassland habitats are being widely affected and Montana is the core of their range. Uncertain if 20% of grassland habitats would be lost in next 15 years, but species experts agree that the species faces threats across large portion of range.

    ImmediacyModerate - Threat is likely to be operational within 2-5 years.


    Intrinsic Vulnerability

    ScoreC - Not Intrinsically Vulnerable. Species matures quickly, reproduces frequently, and/or has high fecundity such that populations recover quickly (< 5 years or 2 generations) from decreases in abundance; or species has high dispersal capability such that extirpated populations soon become reestablished through natural recolonization (unaided by humans).

    CommentNot Intrinsically Vulnerable. Species matures quickly, reproduces frequently, and/or has a high fecundity such that populations recover quickly (< 5 years or 2 generations) from decreases in abundance. Species has good dispersal capabilities such that extirpated populations generally become reestablished through natural recolonization.

    Environmental Specificity

    ScoreB - Narrow. Specialist. Specific habitat(s) or other abiotic and/or biotic factors (see above) are used or required by the Element, but these key requirements are common and within the generalized range of the species within the area of interest.

    CommentNarrow specialist. Species requires native prairie grassland without shrubs.

    Raw Conservation Status Score

    Score 3.5 + 0.0 (geographic distribution) + 0.0 (environmental specificity) + 0.0 (short-term trend) - 0.75 (threats) = 2.75

General Description
The adult Sprague's Pipit is a pale, slender, sparrow-sized bird with white outer tail feathers, a thin bill, pale legs, and a heavily streaked back. Adults reach a length of 6.5 inches (16.5 cm), with a wingspan of 10 inches (25.4 cm), and a weight of 23.7 to 24.0 grams. The sexes are alike. The sides of the head and indistinct buffy eye-rings are pale. The lores contrast with dark brown eyes and the ear coverts are plain brownish-buff, usually with a slight reddish tinge. The crown, sides and rear of neck are buffy with sharply defined black streaks. The back is light sandy-brown with broad black streaks, with a paler more prominent buffy stripe down each side. The wings, 7.7 to 8.5 cm long, have blackish-brown feathers with whitish to buffy-brown edging, and two whitish wing bars. The rump and upper tail coverts, paler than the back, are sandy-brown with narrow black streaks. The blackish-brown feathers of the tail have buffy edging and the outer two pairs of feathers are white. The breast is a bright dark buff with a necklace of narrow black streaks. The flanks are brownish-buff and without streaks. The legs of the adults are pale brown, flesh or yellowish-brown, while they are pinkish in the juveniles (Godfrey 1966, Maher 1979, King 1981, Robbins and Dale 1999).

On the ground, the bird is extremely secretive and flies away in a long, undulating flight when approached. It walks instead of hops and usually only lands on the ground. The bird is most easily detected by its unique flight song given high overhead (as high as 75 meters); a high-pitched, thin "jingling" sound that can continue for as long as an hour (Peterson 2002, King 1981). Johnsgard (1992) notes that the species' spectacular circular song-flight display around its territory, during which its white outer tail feathers are conspicuously spread, compensates for its particularly inconspicuous plumage.

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.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The buffy-brown back with blackish streaking, white wing bars, dark streaked crown, and pale legs distinguish this pipit from the American Pipit, the other species with whom its plumage is most similar (Robbins and Dale 1999, Sibley 2000). Additional characteristics identifying Sprague's Pipit include pale buffy to whitish ear coverts, extensive white on the outer tail feathers, a pale lower mandible, a darker upper mandible, and a diagnostic single-syllable, squeaky, quick call (Robbins and Dale 1999, Sibley 2000). While the Sprague's Pipit is a species of the prairie, the American Pipit typically favors wetter areas and perches more conspicuously (on fences, telephone wires, and treetops) than the Sprague's Pipit (Robbins and Dale 1999).

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 6318

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

The Sprague's Pipit arrives in Montana in early May and breeds shortly thereafter. Records indicate eggs are present in May at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Fall migration begins at the end of August. Few records exist for the species in Montana outside of the May to August time period. The extreme migration dates for the species are April (Roosevelt County) and October (Stillwater County) and are represented by only two records (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012).

An endemic grassland bird, the Sprague's Pipit prefers native, medium to intermediate height prairie (Casey 2000) and in a short grass prairie landscape, can often be found in areas with taller grasses (Samson and Knopf 1996). The Sprague's Pipit is significantly more abundant in native prairie than in exotic vegetation (Dechant et al. 2001). Dechant (2001) also notes that the species has been shown to be area sensitive, requiring relatively large areas of appropriate habitat; the minimum area requirement in a Saskatchewan study was 190 hectares (470 acres). This pipit is also known to utilize and breed in alkaline meadows and around the edges of alkaline lakes (Johnsgard 1992).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
No information on food habits for Sprague's Pipit exists for Montana. However, studies of Sprague's Pipit outside Montata state the primary summer food item is insects, while seeds are consumed during the fall and winter. The Sprague's Pipit is a ground forager. Adults eat a variety of seeds and insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, ants, weevils, stink bugs and caterpillars (Bent 1950). A Manitoba study revealed that nestlings were fed grasshoppers, crickets and moths (Harris 1933) while in an Alberta study, the items of choice for nestlings were grasshoppers, leafhoppers, caterpillars and ants (Maher 1979).

No ecological information exists for Sprague's Pipit in the state. Other studies indicate small territories in presumably good habitat are on the order of 1 hectare in size (Robbins and Dale 1999). Brood parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds is documented in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where rates of parasitism ranged from zero to 25 percent (Dechant et al. 2001).

Reproductive Characteristics
Active Sprague's Pipit nests have been recorded from May through August, with clutch sizes ranging from 3 to 6. Egg dates are probably similar to those for North Dakota: June 7 to 30. The species breeds regularly at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge in Phillips County, locations in Valley and Sheridan counties, and regularly in other counties in the eastern portion of the state with appropriate mixed-grass habitat (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). In other portions of its range, studies indicate the nests are located in depressions in the ground and concealed in clumps of grass (Terres 1980). They are constructed entirely of dead grass, and woven in a circular arrangement; no lining is present (Roberts 1932, Bent 1950). Some nests are partially or completely arched over with dead grasses anchored to the surrounding vegetation. In Manitoba, a nest was built in a depression that was much larger than the nest itself and the extra space was filled with dead grass (Harris 1933). The interior of this nest measured three inches (7.6 cm) in diameter and was 1.5 inches (3.5 cm) deep. Nests are difficult to find, and females do not flush from the nest until they are almost stepped on. Nestlings are altricial and downy.

The eggs are a dull grayish-white with little or no gloss and are speckled with spots or blotches of purplish-brown, with the markings being more numerous at the large end. The average measurement of 44 eggs from various locations was 20.9 by 15.3 mm (Bent 1950). Clutch size is usually four or five eggs; occasionally three to six eggs. The incubation period is unknown, but the Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) in Europe has an incubation period of 13 to 14 days (Bent 1950), and the Sprague's Pipit's is presumed to be of similar duration (Baicich and Harrison 2005).

There seems to be a period of inactivity between an active period of breeding behavior in late April to early June and a late period from mid-July through early September (Stewart 1975). Therefore, although it has never been documented, Sprague's Pipits may raise two broods of young a year.

The female did all of the brooding and feeding of the nestlings in a nest in Manitoba (Harris 1933). These nestlings stayed in the nest 10 or 11 days and when they left, they were not able to fly and had difficulty standing upright. The male may do most of the feeding of the young after they leave the nest, especially in the early part of the breeding season (Harris 1933). In Saskatchewan, the dates that young leave the nest range from the end of May to the middle of August, with the median date occurring at the end of June (Maher 1979).

On April 5, 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing the Sprague’s Pipit as an endangered or threatened species was not warranted throughout all or a significant portion of its range and removed the species from candidate status. Additional information on the species' management can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Species Account

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison. 2005. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Second edition. Academic Press, New York.
    • Bent, A.C. 1950. Life histories of North American wagtails, shrikes, vireos, and their allies. U.S. National Museum Bulletin 197. Washington, D.C.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Bird Conservation Plan Montana Version 1.0. Montana Partners in Flight. Kalispell, Montana.
    • Dechant, J. A., M. L. Sondreal, D. H. Johnson, L.D. Igl, C. M. Goldade, M. P. Nenneman, and B. R. Euliss. 2001. Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Sprague’s pipit. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.
    • Godfrey, W. Earl. 1966. The birds of Canada. National Museums of Canada, Ottawa. 428 pp.
    • Harris, R. D. 1933. Observations on a nest of Sprague's pipit (Anthus spragueii). Canadian Field-Naturalist 47:91-5.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • King, B. 1981. The field identification of North American pipits. American Birds 35:778-88.
    • Maher, W.J. 1979. Nestling diets of prairie passerine birds at Matador, Saskatchewan, Canada. Ibis 121:437-452.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Peterson, R.T. 2002. A field guide to the birds of eastern and central North America. Fifth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston, MA.
    • Roberts, T. S. 1932. The birds of Minnestoa. Vol. 2. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 821 pp.
    • Samson, F. and F. Knopf. 1996. Prairie conservation – preserving North America’s most endangered ecosystem. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 339 pp.
    • Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 544 pp.
    • Stewart, R.E. 1975. Breeding birds of North Dakota. Tri-College Center for Environmental Studies, Fargo, North Dakota. 295 pp.
    • Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1109 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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    • Waldt, R. 1995. The Pine Butte Swamp Preserve bird list. Choteau, MT: The Nature Conservancy. Updated August 1995.
    • Watts, C.R. and L.C. Eichhorn. 1981. Changes in the birds of central Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 40:31-40.
    • White, C.M., N.J. Van Lanen, D.C. Pavlacky Jr., J.A. Blakesley, R.A. Sparks, J.M.Stenger, J.A. Rehm-Lorber, M.F. McLaren, F. Cardone, J.J. Birek and D.J. Hanni. 2011. Integrated monitoring of bird conservation regions (IMBCR): 2010 Annual Report. Brighton, CO: Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. 387 p.
    • Wilson, S.D. and J.W. Belcher. 1989. Plant and bird communities of native prairie and introduced Eurasian vegetation in Manitoba, Canada. Conserv. Biol. 3: 39-44.
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Citation for data on this website:
Sprague's Pipit — Anthus spragueii.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from