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 in different ways depending on the jurisdiction responsible for the species. As a migratory bird protected under the Migratory Bird Convention Act, the Sprague’s Pipit is under federal jurisdiction. This means the residence prohibition is in effect on all lands on which the species occurs immediately upon its addition to the legal list of species at risk. 

The following description of residence for the Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii) was created for the purposes of increasing public awareness and aiding enforcement of the above prohibition. Sprague’s Pipits are known to have one type of residence – the nest. 

Species Information

Common Name - Sprague’s Pipit

Scientific Name - Anthus spragueii

Current Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) Status & 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.

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

Distribution of the Sprague's Pipit in Canada (See long description below)
Description of Figure 1

The Sprague’s Pipit is endemic to North America, where it breeds from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southern and central Alberta to southwestern Manitoba and south to southern Montana, northern South Dakota, and northwestern Minnesota (Figure 1; Robbins and Dale 1999). A single breeding record was recorded in the Riske Creek area of south-central British Columbia in 1991 (McConnell et al. 1993). The breeding range of the Sprague’s Pipit in Canada has contracted from the eastern and northern portions of its historic range in each of the three provinces (COSEWIC 2000). Overall, 60% of the continental breeding range of the Sprague’s Pipit occurs in Prairie Canada (CPPF 2004). Pipits winter in the southwestern United States (primarily Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona) and northern Mexico (Robbins and Dale 1999).

1) The Nest

Physical Appearance and Context

Figure 2. Sprague’s Pipit nest

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. Pipits are area-sensitive and are more likely to nest in native prairie patches greater than 65 ha15. In native pastures, nests are located in areas with increased amounts of residual (dead) vegetation and taller grasses (~ 20 cm in height)16, 17. Pipits avoid placing their nests in areas with a large coverage of bare ground or in areas where residual vegetation has been removed through grazing, fire, or mowing16.

Figure 3. Sprague’s Pipit eggs

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 within May-August).

Additional Information

For more information on the Sprague’s Pipit.

For more information on SARA.

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.

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

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

4 McConnell, 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. Canadian Field Naturalists 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 Number 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.

11 Robbins, 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.

12 Johnson, 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.

14 Madden, 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.

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

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

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

19 Harris, 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.

21 Davis, 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.

23 Sutter, 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.

24 Hooper, 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.

25 Prescott, 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.