Sprague's Pipit Anthus spragueii Scientific name definitions

Stephen K. Davis, Mark B. Robbins, and Brenda C. Dale
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated October 10, 2014

Conservation and Management

Effects of Human Activity

Conversion of prairie to cultivation and inappropriate grazing in much of this species' range continue to cause declines on breeding and wintering grounds (Samson and Knopf 1994, Askins et al. 2007, Pool et al. 2012).

The conversion of native prairie to crops has likely had a dramatic, negative effect on pipits, which are rarely recorded in cropland (Owens and Myres 1973, DeSmet and Conrad 1991, Dale 1993, Hartley 1994, Prescott and Bilyk 1996, Davis et al. 1999, McMaster and Davis 2001, Dale et al. 2005). Negative effects of cropland extend into adjacent grasslands. Sliwinski and Koper (2012) documented a 25% decline in pipit numbers in grasslands within 1 km of cropland edges; Fisher et al. (in review) found pipit occurrence higher > 800 m from cropland edges. Davis et al. (2013) documented pipit abundance decreases with increased amounts of cropland in the surrounding landscape in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Pipits occasionally forage in cropland (COSEWIC 2000) and therefore may be exposed to deleterious effects of pesticides (Martin et al. 2005). The effects of conversion of grassland to crop or exotic vegetation on the wintering grounds have not yet been documented but may be substantial (A. Punjabi pers. comm.).

The large-scale introduction of Eurasian plant species has had both positive and negative effects on Sprague's Pipits. Conversion of cropland to planted grasslands have likely benefited the species to some degree since the species occurs more frequently and is more abundant on planted grasslands than cropland (Davis et al. 1999), particularly planted grassland with a high grass to forb ratio (Davis and Duncan 1999, Fisher and Davis 2011a) and when surrounded by native grassland (Davis et al. 2013). However, abundance and occurrence of pipits in non-native grassland is typically less than that found in native grasslands (Owens and Myres 1973, Wilson and Belcher 1989, Dale 1990, 1992, 1993, Davis et al. 1996, Prescott and Wagner 1996, Sutter and Brigham 1998, Davis et al. 1999, Madden et al. 2000, Davis et al. 2013).

In Alberta, pipit territories had less crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) than random locations (Hamilton 2010). While nestling growth rates and nestling provisioning rates are similar in native and planted grasslands (Dohms 2009), daily nest survival rates decrease with increasing amounts of crested wheatgrass (Ludlow 2013) and juvenile survival is lower in planted than native grasslands (Fisher and Davis 2011b). Exotic plant mixes of the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program, Canada's Permanent Cover Program and Dense Nesting Cover for waterfowl attract few to no pipits (Dale 1993, Johnson an Schwartz 1993, Hartley 1994, McMaster and Davis 2001).

The effects of cattle grazing on pipit densities depend on a number of factors, ranging from the frequency and duration of grazing to environmental conditions such as moisture, soil types, and plant species composition (Owens and Myres 1973, Maher 1973, Karasiuk et al. 1977, Kantrud 1981, Kantrud and Kologiski 1982, Dale 1983, 1984, George et al. 1992). Moderate to heavy grazing in mesic mixed-grass prairie appears to have less impact and may be beneficial to pipits (Kantrud and Kologiski 1982). In contrast, low and moderate levels of grazing in drier, less densely vegetated mixed-grass prairie is more likely to harm pipits (Sliwinski and Koper in review). In s. Saskatchewan, pipit abundance is influenced more by range condition than by whether pastures were managed under rotational or continuous grazing systems (Davis et al. in press). In se. Alberta, pipits were more abundant in fall- than summer-grazed native pastures with similar stocking rates (Dale and Belair unpubl. data). In sw. Saskatchewan, daily nest survival rates were found to be similar in grazed and ungrazed mixed-grass prairie and declined with increased vegetation density and litter depth (Lusk 2009, Lusk and Koper in press). In North Dakota, pipits were more common on grassland grazed by cattle than by bison, although findings were likely influenced by greater shrub coverage and taller vegetation in bison plots (Lueders et al. 2006).

Very few pipits were encountered in surveys of hayed grasslands in North Dakota (Kantrud 1981) or in Canadian prairies (McMaster and Davis 2001, McMaster et al. 2005). In Manitoba, although native hayland was more attractive than brome/alfalfa hayland or idle native grassland, it was less attractive than pasture (DeSmet and Conrad 1991). In Alberta, hayed native fescue was less attractive to pipits than idle fescue, but more attractive than grazed fescue (Owens and Myres 1973). In Saskatchewan, pipit occurrence was highest in native and seeded pasture and lowest in hayland and cropland (Davis et al. 1999). At Last Mtn. Lake, Saskatchewan, pipits were more common in idle native grasslands than in either annually or periodically hayed exotic grasses (Dale et al. 1997). Annually cut fields were more suitable than periodically cut hay fields in most years. Daily nest survival rates were similar in planted hayfields and native grassland, but unlike native grassland sites, territories did not persist and re-nesting was not documented in hayfields (Davis unpubl. data).

Pipits show mixed responses to activities associated with natural gas and oil development. In Saskatchewan, Bogard and Davis (in review) found no effect of gas well proximity or density on pipit abundance. Linnen (2008) found no effect of gas well proximity on pipit abundance but reanalysis for environmental hearings found an increase of 0.26 individuals/100 m distance from wells (Government of Canada 2008). Gaudet (2013) found no influence of natural gas development on pipit density or nest survival but found the number of young fledged increased with distance from gas well trails. In Alberta, Hamilton et al. (2011) found that the species tended to be less abundant in areas with high gas well density (mean = 15 wells/2.59 km2) than low well density (mean = 9 wells/2.59 km2) sites. The best model predicting occurrence at Canadian Forces Base Suffield included a negative effect of well density (Government of Canada 2008). Ludlow (2013) found no effect of oil and gas development on pipit density but nest survival decreased with increased amount of crested wheatgrass cover. Dale et al. (2009) found a non-significant 13% decline in pipit abundance with moderate gas well density. Linnen (2008) documented lower frequency of occurrence within 50 m 150 m, and 250 m from oil wells and access roads than 350 m away.

In Saskatchewan, pipits were more abundant along trails than along roads (Sutter et al 2000). In Alberta, pipits crossed both two-track trails and roads less frequently than expected by chance (Hamilton 2010). Fisher et al. (in review) and Koper et al. (2009) found road proximity did not influence abundance in s.-central Saskatchewan and se. Alberta. Distance to paved roads, tertiary roads, dirt roads, a field, a railway right-of-way, and a lacustrine shoreline had no effect on nest success in Montana (Jones and White 2012).


Conservation and enhancement of native grassland parcels ≥ 145 ha (and > 800 m from crop edges) is critical for conserving suitable habitat (Davis 2004, Koper et al. 2009). Livestock grazing is the most common (and therefore important) management regime implemented on grasslands. Proper grazing management reduces excessive residual grass cover and stimulates growth of native plants and prevents or slows invasion by exotic plants and woody vegetation. The type of grazing system is less important than providing suitable vegetative structure (Ranellucci et al. 2012, Davis et al. in review). Improving pastures from fair to good range condition are likely to have the greatest impact on increasing pipit abundance on native rangeland (Davis et al. in review). Fall grazing results in more residual vegetation and more pipits the following year than summer grazing at similar stocking rates (Dale and Belair unpubl. data). Pipit abundance increases with distance from water (Sliwinski and Koper 2012, Dale and Wiens in review), suggesting larger pastures with fewer water sources provide more suitable habitat.

Shrub and tree encroachment due to fire suppression, especially in mesic portions of their range, has a negative influence on pipit numbers (Grant et al. 2004). Prescribed fire may be used on the breeding grounds, particularly in eastern and northern portions of the range, and on wintering grounds. Burning reduces shrub encroachment as well as residual grass cover and may reduce or restrict invasion of exotic plants. The impact of burning on pipit abundance varies with frequency, soil type, and moisture regimes (Maher 1973, Pylypec 1991, Madden 1996, Danley et al. 2004). In Saskatchewan, although pipit density was lowest the first year following prescribed burns (0.11–0.14/ha), densities in the second (0.61/ha, mixed grassland; Maher 1973) or third year (0.25/ha, native fescue; Pylypec 1991) were greater than or similar to those in unburned areas. Pipits were most abundant 2–3 yr postfire, but sometimes up to 7 yr; none were present on native prairie that had not been burned or grazed in > 8 yr (Madden 1996). In North Dakota, pipits were more common on sites that were grazed following prescribed burning than on sites that were only burned (Danley et al. 2004). In drier portions of the range, pipits responded negatively to fire (Dale et al. 1999) while abundance remained high in native grasslands undisturbed for > 15 yr (Dale 1983) and up to 32 yr (Sutter 1996).

Preferred management method(s) and frequency vary with location, soil type, and condition of habitat. The need for management may be less intense and/or frequent on well-drained soils and drier sites, but more intense/frequent on more productive soils and mesic sites.

Although research on the response of pipits to roads, trails, and petroleum development is equivocal, their response to non-native plants is clearer. Linear development, petroleum development, vehicular travel on roads and trails, and soil disturbance are all associated with invasion of non-native plants (Larson et al. 2001, Gelbard and Belnap 2003, Berquist et al. 2007, von der Lippe and Kowarik 2007). Minimizing soil disturbance and linear development, and the use of grazing and fire management are all tools to reduce invasion by non-native plants. Plantings for conservation programs should be with native or non-invasive plants.

Encroachment of shrubs and trees throughout the wintering area, as a result of severe overgrazing over the past century, has drastically reduced viable habitat (Brown 1982, Stotz et al. 1996). In Mexico, key management prescriptions include protection of functioning grasslands, shrub removal in areas currently not occupied by pipits and alteration of grazing regimes to increase grass cover and heterogeneity (Pool et al. 2012). To retain and restore Chihuahuan Desert grasslands it is important to work with local ejidos to alter grazing management (Desmond 2004).

Recommended Citation

Davis, S. K., M. B. Robbins, and B. C. Dale (2020). Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.sprpip.01