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Description of Residence for Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii) in Canada

Section 33 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) prohibits damaging or destroying the residence of a listed threatened, endangered, or extirpated species. SARA defines residence as: “a dwelling-place, such as a den, nest or other similar area or place, that is occupied or habitually occupied by one or more individuals during all or part of their life cycles, including breeding, rearing, staging, wintering, feeding or hibernating” [s.2(1)].

The prohibition comes into effect immediately upon listing for all threatened, endangered, and extirpated species on federal lands, and for species under pre-existing federal jurisdiction on all lands. Species under pre-existing federal jurisdiction are aquatic species (a wildlife species that is a fish, as defined in section 2 of the Fisheries Act, or a marine plant, as defined in section 47 of that Act) or migratory birds protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act. SARA also contains a provision to prohibit the destruction of non-federal species’ residences on provincial, territorial, and private lands by way of an Order by the Governor in Council (GIC), if the Minister of the Environment recommends it necessary to do so [s.34(2), 35(2)]. 

The following is a description of residence for the Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii), created for the purposes of increasing public awareness and aiding enforcement of the above prohibition. As a migratory bird protected under the MBCA, the Sprague’s pipit is under federal jurisdiction and thus the residence prohibition is in effect on all lands where the species occurs. They are known to have one type of residence – the nest. 

Species Information:

Common Name – Sprague’s Pipit

Scientific Name – Anthus spragueii

Current COSEWICStatus & Year of Designation – Threatened (2000)

Occurrence in Canada – The Canadian range of the Sprague's Pipit is largely confined to the grassland and aspen parkland regions of the prairie provinces1. In Canada, the Sprague’s Pipit breeds primarily in native prairie from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southern and central Alberta2, to west-central and south-western Manitoba3. A single confirmed breeding record also occurred in south-central British Columbia4 (Figure 1).

Rationale for Designation – Continued loss of breeding habitat and rapidly declining population throughout its range1.

Distribution of the Sprague's Pipit in Canada


Figure 1. Known distribution of the Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii) in Canada.

1) The Nest

Physical Appearance and Context

Strague Pipit nest

Sprague’s Pipit nests are protected as a residence. Sprague’s Pipits are most common in native prairie of intermediate height and density, with few shrubs, and moderate amounts of residual vegetation and plant litter1. Pipits are rarely found in cultivated lands or in dense permanent cover planted for waterfowl management or soil conservation 1,5,6,7. Furthermore, nesting has not been recorded in these habitats. However, pipits can occur regularly in areas where native grasses have been replaced with introduced forage (e.g., hayfields and seeded pastures), if vegetation structure is similar to native prairie 8,9,10. Breeding habitat becomes unsuitable immediately after burning, when livestock activity is intense, or when management, or lack thereof results in tall, dense vegetation invaded by shrubs and exotic plants 11,12,13, 14. The longevity of the impact will vary depending upon moisture, soil, and frequency of disturbance11,14. Native habitat is also degraded when fragmented by human activities15. In native pastures, nests are located in areas with increased amounts of residual vegetation and taller grasses (~ 20 cm in height) 16,17. Pipits avoid placing their nests in recently grazed areas and in areas with a large coverage of bare ground 16

Sprague’s Pipit eggs

The nest is located in a depression below ground level, usually at the base of tussocks of grass, and is composed of coarse and fine grasses woven in a cup11. Long grasses growing beside the nest are typically interwoven to form a dome18 (Figure 2). Runways are often located at the nest entrance, and can extend up to 15 cm in length18. On average, the interior of the nest is 7.6 cm in diameter and 3.8 cm in depth, the entrance hole is 5.1 cm19. Females lay 2 to 6 eggs (typically 4 or 5) and incubate them for 10-15 days1, 11, 20, 21. The eggs are grayish white to pale buff with olive-brown to purplish-brown markings. They are subelliptical to oval and are approximately 21 x 15 mm11 (Figure 3).


The function of the nest residence is to provide protection, shelter, and the required conditions for egg laying, incubation, and hatching as well as the rearing of young. 

Damage and Destruction of the Residence

Any activity that destroys the function of the nest (i.e. site used for laying, incubation, and brood rearing) would constitute damage or destruction of the residence. This would include, but not limited to, preventing access to the nest, mowing/haying or destroying the nest, or removing vegetation immediately adjacent to, and above the nest.

Period and Frequency of Occupancy

Nest building usually begins early to mid-May, and clutches are typically initiated from the second week of May to the end of July, but may extend into August11, 22. The young leave the nest between 10-13 days of age11, 20. Each nest is used once and new nests are built for subsequent nesting attempts, typically within 100 m of the original nest 20, 23. The nest site should remain a residence from the time of construction of the nest until the entire brood leaves the nest (approximately 30 days). 

Additional Protection

The Sprague's Pipit, and its nests and eggs, have been protected from hunting and collecting in North America since 1916 by the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act. The species is also protected from disturbance under provincial Wildlife Acts in British Columbia24, Alberta (listed as a ‘non-game animal’) 25, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba1


1 Prescott, D. R. C. and S. K. Davis. 1998. Status report on the Sprague’s Pipit Anthus spragueii in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. 

2Semenchuk, G. P. (ed.). 1992. The atlas of breeding birds of Alberta. Federation of Alberta Naturalists, Edmonton, AB. 391 pp.

3ManitobaAvian Research Committee. 2003. The birds of Manitoba. Manitoba Naturalists Society, Winnipeg, MB.

4McConnell, S. D., R. Van den Driessche, T. D. Hooper, G. L. Roberts, and A. Roberts. 1993. First occurrence and breeding of Sprague's Pipit, Anthus spragueii, for British Columbia. Can. Field-Nat.107:222-223.

5 Dale, B. and G. McKeating. 1996. Finding common ground – the nongame evaluation of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in Canada. Pp 258-265 IN Proceedings of 7th International Waterfowl Symposium, J.t. Ratti (editor). Ducks Unlimited, Memphis

6 McMaster, D. G., and S. K. Davis. 2001. An evaluation of Canada's Permanent Cover Program: habitat for grassland birds? Journal of Field Ornithology 72:195-210.

7 Dale, B., M. Norton, C. Downes, and B. Collins. In press. Monitoring as a means to focus research and conservation – the Grassland Bird Monitoring example. Proceedings of Partners in Flight conference.

8 Dale, B. C., P. A. Martin, and P. S. Taylor. 1997. Effects of hay management on grassland songbirds in Saskatchewan. Wildlife Society Bulletin 25:616-626.

9 De Smet, K. D. and M. P. Conrad. 1997. Management and research needs for Baird's Sparrows and other grassland species in Manitoba. Pp. 83-86. in Provincial Museum of Alberta Natural History Occasional Paper No. 15: proceedings of the second endangered species and prairie conservation workshop (Holroyd, G. L., G. Burns and H. C. Smith, eds.). Provincial Museum of Alberta Natural History, Edmonton AB.

10 Davis, S. K. and D. C. Duncan. 1999. Grassland songbird occurrence in native and crested wheatgrass pastures of southern Saskatchewan. Studies in Avian Biology 19:211-218.

11Robbins, M. B., and B. C. Dale. 1999. Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii). In The Birds of North America, No. 439 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

12Johnson, D. H, L. D. Igl, J.A. Dechant, M. L. Sondreal,. C. M. Goldade, M. P. Nenneman, and B. R. Euliss. 1998. Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Sprague’s Pipit. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. 10 p.

13 Davis, S. K., D. C. Duncan, and M. A. Skeel. 1999. Distribution and habitat associations of three endemic grassland songbirds in southern Saskatchewan. Wilson Bulletin 111:389-396.

14Madden, E.M., R.K. Murphy, A.J. Hansen, and L. Murray. 2000. Models for guiding management of prairie bird habitat in northwestern North Dakota. American Midland Naturalist 144:377-392.

15 Davis, S. K. 2004. Detecting area sensitivity of grassland passerines: effects of patch size, patch shape, and vegetation structure on bird abundance and occurrence in southern Saskatchewan. Auk 121:1130-1145.

16Davis, S.K. 2003. Habitat selection and demography of mixed-grass prairie songbirds in a fragmented landscape. PhD. Dissertation. University of Regina, Saskatchewan.

17Dieni, J. S. and S. L. Jones. 2003. Grassland songbird nest site selection patterns in northcentral Montana. Wilson Bulletin 115:388-396.

18Sutter, G. C. 1997. Nest-site selection and nest-entrance orientation in Sprague’s Pipit. Wilson Bulletin 109:462-469.

19Harris, R. D. 1933. Observations on a nest of Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii). Canadian Field-Naturalist 47:91-95.

20 Davis, S. K. 2004. Natural history and demography of Sprague’s Pipit in south-central Saskatchewan: Unpublished data. Canadian Wildlife Service. Regina, SK.

21Davis, S.K. 2003. Breeding ecology of mixed-grass prairie songbirds in southern Saskatchewan. Wilson Bulletin 115:119-130.

22 Davis, S. K. 1994. Cowbird parasitism, predation, and host selection in fragmented grassland of southwestern Manitoba. Unpubl. M.Sc. thesis, Univ. Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB. 77 pp.

23Sutter, G. C., D. J. Sawatzky, D. M. Cooper, and R. M. Brigham. 1996. Renesting intervals in Sprague's Pipit, Anthus spragueii. The Canadian Field Naturalist 110:694-697.

24Hooper, T. D. 1997. Status of the Sprague's Pipit in British Columbia. B.C. Environment, Wildlife Working Report No. WR-88, Victoria, BC. 7 pp.

25Prescott, D. R. C. 1997. Status of the Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii) in Alberta. Alberta Environmental Protection, Wildlife Management Division, Wildlife Status Report No. 10, Edmonton, AB. 14 pp.