Photo: Tom Vezo/Vireo

Smith's Longspur

Calcarius pictus

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.
Conservation status Numbers probably stable. Most of breeding range is remote from human disturbance.
Family Longspurs and Snow Buntings
Habitat 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.
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.
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Feeding Behavior

Does all its foraging while walking or running on the ground. Except when nesting, usually forages in flocks.


Eggs

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. Young: 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.


Young

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.

Diet

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.


Nesting

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).

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

Migration

Tends to migrate late in fall and early in spring; present on wintering areas mostly from November to March. Migrates in flocks.

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Migration

Tends to migrate late in fall and early in spring; present on wintering areas mostly from November to March. Migrates in flocks.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Dry rattle, like a finger running along the teeth of a comb.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Smith'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 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.

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