Here’s Nate with our next (and less predatory) grassland bird species:
A lot of the time, small songbirds are lumped into the category of “sparrow-like bird” due to a lack of identification features or skills of the observer. In this article, I describe a truly beautiful specimen of the prairies, the Chestnut-collared Longspur.
Like most songbirds, Chestnut-collared Longspurs display sexual dimorphism, a trait where males and females have different physical appearances. During breeding season males are highly decorative, especially around the head and neck. Their name comes from the chestnut-coloured splotch on the back of the neck that forms a sort of ‘collar’. The top of their heads has a thin black cap which is met by a thick white eyebrow. Cheeks and throat have a light peach colouring which you can imagine as a bit of peach fuzz on a pubescent teenager. There are an additional two black stripes on the cheek below the eyebrow line with alternating white lines. In flight, a black fork can be found running down the middles of the tail feathers. As is the case with most sexually dimorphic species, females are much duller in colour and do not have as many flashy ornaments to impress a mate. After all, they are the ones being impressed! Females, juveniles, and non-breeding adults have muddled streaks on their breast and light brown streaks on the back. Facial features are the same as males but in much duller colour and less pronounced with a light brown ‘ear mark’ between the cheek and neck. Males sing a complicated string of buzzy notes in flight and while perched. Both sexes perform a ‘tzip’ sounding call during aggressive situations.
Chestnut-collared longspurs require short grass prairie under one foot in height to breed. This includes taller prairies that have been recently mowed, grazed (historically by bison and more recently by cattle) or burned. In the summer, these birds migrate to the Northern plains and overwinter in the Southern great plains and Chihuahuan Desert. These birds build their nests on the ground and try to utilize cover from taller vegetation within their short grassland habitat. Females produce a clutch of 3-5 eggs pale grey eggs speckled with dark red spots, and can raise 2-3 broods, or cohorts of young. This means that the female will nest more than once during the breeding season but often with a different mate. Young take 7-15 days to hatch and the same amount of time to leave the nest after hatching. These birds will mostly hunt for insects (grasshoppers being a favourite) and seeds while walking on the ground but will occasionally take flight and catch aerial insects just above the ground.
From 1966-2015 chestnut-collared longspurs have had an annual population decline of 4.2% which totalled to an 87% population decline in 49 years! Continuing this trajectory, these birds will lose another half of their population size by 2037. The main cause for these longspurs experiencing population decline is a loss of breeding habitat. Due to this bird’s dependence on grazed prairie, protected or un-managed grasslands that are not mowed or grazed can not provide suitable nesting habitat. Like most birds, chestnut collared longspurs are susceptible to non-native introduced predators such as feral cats. Properly managed cattle and other livestock grazing operations can provide rich habitat for this bird in the absence of the once abundant bison.
-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz