At a Glance
Rather uncommon and mysterious birds, Smith's Longspurs nest in the Arctic, in a narrow zone where the last stunted trees give way to open tundra. They spend the winter on the southern Great Plains. On the wintering grounds, the birds live in flocks in open fields of short grass, where they are difficult to see well; if a birder gets too close, the longspurs take wing with dry rattling calls, to circle over the prairie before alighting again some distance away.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
New World Sparrows, Perching Birds
Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, Eastern Canada, Great Lakes, Plains, Southeast, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Running, Undulating
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Tends to migrate late in fall and early in spring; present on wintering areas mostly from November to March. Migrates in flocks.
5 3/4-6 1/2" (15-17 cm). Summer male orange-buff below, with contrasty face triangle. Females and winter birds much plainer; more buffy than other longspurs, with hint of face pattern. Tail has narrow white edges.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, Tan, White, Yellow
Songs and Calls
Dry rattle, like a finger running along the teeth of a comb.
Chirp/Chip, Rattle, Trill, Whistle
Prairies, fields, airports; in summer, tundra. Breeds along treeline in the North, where stunted forest gives way to tundra, mainly in areas of grassy or sedgy tundra with scattered low shrubs and short conifers. Winters on shortgrass plains, heavily grazed pastures, airport fields.
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4, sometimes 3-5, rarely 1-6. Pale tan to pale green, marked with lavender and dark brown. Incubation is by female only, 11-13 days.
Fed by female and by one or more males. Young leave the nest about 7-9 days after hatching, unable to fly well for about another week. 1 brood per year.
Does all its foraging while walking or running on the ground. Except when nesting, usually forages in flocks.
Mostly seeds and insects. Diet is mainly seeds for much of year, especially in winter, including seeds of weeds and grasses, also waste grain. Also eats insects, and these become major part of diet during breeding season; included are caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, flies, moths, damselflies, and others, as well as spiders and snails.
Unusual breeding system. Breeds in small colonies, where males sing to attract females but do not defend territories. Both males and females are promiscuous; the young in a single nest are often of mixed parentage, and may be fed by more than one male. Nest site is on ground on dry hummock of tundra, among grass clumps or near base of low shrub. Often sunken in shallow depression, but not as well hidden as nests of some longspurs. Nest (built by female) is open cup of grass and sedges, lined with lichens, animal hair, and particularly with feathers (ptarmigan feathers especially favored).
Numbers probably stable. Most of breeding range is remote from human disturbance.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Smith's Longspur. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Smith'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.