Thick-billed Longspur
Rhynchophanes mccownii

At a Glance

An uncommon bird of the high plains, nesting on shortgrass prairies and wintering in dry fields of the Southwest. Thick-billed 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. Formerly called McCown's Longspur. 
New World Sparrows, Perching Birds
Low Concern
Desert and Arid Habitats, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands
California, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Running, Undulating

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

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.


5 3/4-6" (15 cm). Strong tail pattern (like Chestnut-collared Longspur, but black is shaped like inverted T). Summer male has black chest and cap, rusty shoulder; female duller. Winter birds paler and chunkier than most longspurs, with bigger bill.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, Gray, Red, Tan, White
Wing Shape
Tail Shape
Notched, Square-tipped

Songs and Calls

Dry rattle; also a clear sweet warble given during a fluttering flight with wings raised high over back.
Call Pattern
Call Type
Chirp/Chip, Trill, Whistle


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.



2-4, sometimes 5, perhaps rarely 6. White to pale olive, marked with brown and lavender. Incubation is by female only, about 12 days.


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.

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.


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.


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.

Climate Vulnerability

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.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Thick-billed Longspur. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Thick-billed 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.