Photo: G. Lasley/Vireo

McCown's Longspur

Rhynchophanes mccownii

An uncommon bird of the high plains, nesting on shortgrass prairies and wintering in dry fields of the Southwest. McCown's Longspurs are most conspicuous in summer, when the males perform flight-song displays, singing as they parachute down with their white tail feathers spread wide. In winter they are often in forbiddingly barren areas, such as plowed fields or dry lake beds, where there are few other birds except for flocks of hardy Horned Larks. Like other longspurs, however, they are attracted to water, and swirling flocks often descend on the margins of ponds.
Conservation status Species is far less numerous today than at beginning of 20th century, probably owing to loss of habitat. In recent decades, population probably stable or possibly increasing.
Family Longspurs and Snow Buntings
Habitat Plains, prairies. Breeds in rather dry open prairie with short grass, sometimes with patches of open ground or low cactus. Winters on similar shortgrass plains, also on bare soil such as dry lake beds, plowed fields. At all seasons, favors shorter grass and more open ground than that chosen by Chestnut-collared Longspurs occurring in same region.
An uncommon bird of the high plains, nesting on shortgrass prairies and wintering in dry fields of the Southwest. McCown's Longspurs are most conspicuous in summer, when the males perform flight-song displays, singing as they parachute down with their white tail feathers spread wide. In winter they are often in forbiddingly barren areas, such as plowed fields or dry lake beds, where there are few other birds except for flocks of hardy Horned Larks. Like other longspurs, however, they are attracted to water, and swirling flocks often descend on the margins of ponds.
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Feeding Behavior

Forages while running and walking on ground, picking up items from soil or from plant stems. After flushing insects (such as grasshoppers) from ground, will chase actively, sometimes pursuing them in short flights. Except during nesting season, usually forages in flocks.


Eggs

2-4, sometimes 5, perhaps rarely 6. White to pale olive, marked with brown and lavender. Incubation is by female only, about 12 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave the nest about 10 days after hatching; can run well at this stage but fly only poorly until a few days later. May remain with parents for at least another 3 weeks.


Young

Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave the nest about 10 days after hatching; can run well at this stage but fly only poorly until a few days later. May remain with parents for at least another 3 weeks.

Diet

Mostly seeds and insects. Seeds make up more than half of summer diet of adults, and most of winter diet; included are seeds of grasses, weeds, sedges, shrubs. Also eats many insects, especially in summer, including grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, moths, and others. Young are fed mostly insects.


Nesting

Male defends nesting territory by performing flight song display, flying up to about 30' and then sailing or gliding down, with wings outstretched and tail fanned, while singing. Will also fight aggressively with intruding males. In courtship, male may circle female on ground, raising one wing high to show off white wing-lining, while singing. Nest site is on open ground, usually placed very close to a large grass clump or weed, small shrub, dried cow manure, or other object. Nest is built by female in slight depression in ground, an open cup made mostly of grass, sometimes with weeds, rootlets, and lichens added, lined with fine grass, plant fibers, animal hair.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Migrates in flocks. Northward migration begins by early spring; southward migration spread over much of fall. Rarely strays west to Pacific Coast, accidental east of Great Plains.

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Migration

Migrates in flocks. Northward migration begins by early spring; southward migration spread over much of fall. Rarely strays west to Pacific Coast, accidental east of Great Plains.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Dry rattle; also a clear sweet warble given during a fluttering flight with wings raised high over back.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the McCown's Longspur

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect this bird’s range in the future.

Zoom in to see how this species’s current range will shift, expand, and contract under increased global temperatures.

Climate threats facing the McCown's Longspur

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

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