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McCown’s Longspur

These birds are more commonly known as Thick-billed longspurs.

Although a complete migrant, meaning that essentially all individuals in the population migrate, the breeding and wintering ranges of the McCown’s Longspur are not far apart. McCown’s Longspurs migrate in flocks, and spring migration is believed to be initiated by the changing photoperiod.

McCown’s Longspurs spend much time on the ground. They are known to bathe in both dust and dew. Both males and females are territorial during the breeding season, and chase intruders vigorously. Few McCown’s Longspurs have been banded.


Description of the McCown’s Longspur


The McCown’s Longspur has a black tail with an inverted black “T” at the end. It has a thick bill, and when perched its wingtips nearly reach its tail tip.
Male/breeding plumage:
-Black crown and breast.
-White face and throat.
– Length: 6in   Wiingspan: 11in.

McCowns Longspur

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Brownish upperparts and brownish ear patch.

Seasonal change in appearance

Males lose black crown and much of the black breast.


Juveniles resemble winter females.


Plains and prairies.


Seeds and insects.

McCowns Longspur

Females and winter males very similar.


Forages by walking or running.


Breeds in the north-central U.S. and south-central Canada and winters in the south-central U.S.

Fun Facts

Male McCown’s Longspurs perform spectacular flight displays during the early breeding season.

Grazed areas are preferred by McCown’s Longspurs, but fire suppression and plowing alter the habitat in ways not suited to this species.


A tinkling song and a dry rattle call are given.


Similar Species


The nest is a cup of plant material placed on the ground.

Number: 2-4.
Color: White or olive with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:  
– Young hatch at 12 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 10 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the McCown’s Longspur

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the McCown’s Longspur – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


Contributed by HERBERT KRAUSE


Whether on its winter range or summer breeding ground, McCown’s longspur is a bird of the plains, of the “big sky” country where the land flattens to the blue haze of mesa or plateau; where distance is the hawk’s flight from a line of craggy “breaks” to the horizon. Amid the features of such a vast landscape it was first collected about 1851. It happened apparently as much by accident as by design. “I fired at a flock of Shore Larks,” writes Capt. John P. McCown, U.S.A. (1851), “and found this bird among the killed.” For this, in the first published description of the bird, George N. Lawrence (1851) announced, “It gives me pleasure to bestow upon this species the name of my friend, Capt. J. P. McCown, U.S.A.” He adds, “Two specimens were obtained * * * on the high prairies of Western Texas. When killed, they were feeding in company with Shore Larks. Although procured late in the spring, they still appear to be in their winter dress.”

Very likely this is the bird that the fatigued Captain Meriwether Lewis saw on the Marias River (near Loma, Choteau County, Mont.). Had he been more explicit in his description he might have added McCown’s longspur to the magpie and the prairie dog on the list of species new to science the Lewis and Clark Expedition was to bring out of the vast northwestern wilderness. As it happened, the company was footsore and weary, slightly rebellious, and nearly at the rope’s end of its resources when on June 2,1805, with its usual unpredictableness, the Missouri River divided in front of the explorers. One branch bore down on them from the right or north, the other seemed to come from the south or left, each flow about equally wicked in its rolling turbidity. Which was the Missouri and which its affluent? An incorrect decision meant days of toil and pain spent for nothing, incalculable delay, the threat of spending winter in the mountains. On June 4,1805, Lewis and six men, taking the righthand fork, the Marias River, explored upstream. A day’s march brought him to extensive “plains” where prickly pear tore his feet through his “Mockersons,” where rain soaked, and a windstorm chilled the party. What with haste, the fear of Indian attack, the distraction of bear, deer, elk, and “barking squireels” continually under their gunsights, it is perhaps hardly surprising that when he encountered a new bird in the short grass, Lewis did not collect it and later was less precise in his report than was his custom. He listed (Thwaites, Lewis and Clark Journals, II: 119: 120) several sparrows and Also a small bird which in action resembles the lark, it is about the size of a large sparrow of a dark brown colour with some white feathers in the tail; this bird or that which I take to be the male rises into the air about 60 feet and supporting itself in the air with a brisk motion of the wings sings very sweetly, has several shrill soft notes reather of the plaintive order which it frequently repeats and varies, after remaining stationary about a minute in his aireal station he descends obliquely occasionally pausing and accomnyng his descension with a note something like twit twit twit; on the ground he is silent. Thirty or forty of these birds will be stationed in the air at a time in view. These larks as I shall call them add much to the gayety and cheerfullness of the scene. All those birds are not seting and laying their eggs in the plains; their little nests are to be seen in great abundance as we pass. there are meriads of small grasshoppers in these plains which no doubt furnish the principal aliment of this numerous progeny of the feathered creation.

While Lewis’ notation describes McCown’s generally (though it lacks the precise detail necessary for positive identification), Elliott Coues in his annotation of the Biddle edition of the Lewis and Clark “JOURNALS” in 1893 unhesitatingly identified the bird: “This is the black-breasted lark-bunting or longspur, CentropAanes (Rhynchopanes) maceowni, which abounds in Montana in the breeding seasons.” Reuben G. Thwaites, the editor of the “ORIGINAL JOURNALS OF LEWIS AND CLARK (1904: 05),” accepts his conclusion. Between 1806, when Thomas Jefferson announced the news of the progress of the Expedition in a message to the Congress, and 1851, when George N. Lawrence published the discovery of the longspur, only the Biddle version of the “JOURNALS” (published in 1814) appeared in print. The Biddle edition, however, is a paraphrase, a popular account of the most important events of the expedition. It omits the scientific data, including the zoological material, among which is the account of MeCown’s longspur. While the avian specimens collected on the Expedition were becoming well known, the scientific data remained in darkest obscurity.

For almost a hundred years Lewis’ description of “a small bird” with a treasury of other ornithological information lay hidden in the unpublished portions of the “JOURNALS” in the library vaults of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. In 1892 Elliott Coues, his new Biddle edition largely completed, learned of the original papers, secured them, and from their largely untapped resources enriched his volume with pages of annotations. One of the notes pertains to the identification of Lewis’ “small bird.” But the actual text of Lewis’ account of the discovery was not published until Thwaites brought out the original Lewis and Clark “JOURNALS,” uncut and intact, in 1904: 05. By that time Captain McCown’s discovery of the longspur was firmly established in the literature. With no specimen of McCown’s from the expedition at hand, ornithologists since then seem indisposed to reopen the question whether the “small bird” Lewis saw on its breeding grounds really was, as Coues stoutly maintained, Centrophaues (Rh yrwhophanes) maccowrvt.

If his identification of the species lacks detail, Lewis’ description of its habitat is certainly that of McCown’s longspur. For McCown’s is a bird of the land where mirages on miles of sage and salt flats deceive the eye with the illusion of gleaming tree-bordered lakes; where, as Lewis observed, “the whole country appears to be one continued plain to the foot of the mountains or as far as the eye can reach; the soil appears dark rich and fertile yet the grass * * * is short just sufficient to conceal the ground. Great abundance of prickly pears which are extremely troublesome; as the thorns very readily pierce the foot through the Mockerson; they are so numerous that it requires one half of the traveler’s attention to avoid them;” a land where the temperature, as unpredictable as a cowboy’s flapjacks, rises breathlessly high in summer and drops to icy lows in winter. In Custer County, Montana, in the late 1880s, Ewen S. Cameron (1907) watched McCown’s longspurs in the heat waves of a temperature standing at 114 degrees. In July 1911 near Choteau, Teton County, in the same state, Aretas A. Saunders (1912), caught in one of those thunderstorms which suddenly and commonly lash the plains, fled to cover under a sheep herder’s shed to escape the rain which quickly changed to hail. Soon “a small flock” of McCown’s longspurs joined him, “feeding on the ground under the shed as though they were out in the open in the best of weather.”

I remember the flock of McCown’s I saw in 1958 in a late April squall. According to my field notes:

Mr. and Mrs. Herman Chapman, Dr. N. R. Whitney, Jr., and I drove near Casper, Wyoming. With the unexpectedness characteristic of prairie weather, a spring storm hurled wind and snow upon us; the road ahead vanished. We no more than crawled along a road where side-banks, car high, were topped with sage.

Suddenly we saw birds struggling into view over and into the road. Some came down no more than a car’s length away. Chapman stopped altogether. We saw they were McCown’s Longspurs, the black caps and dark smudgy crescents on the breast marking the gray fronts of the males. Farther away were others, their bodies so light in color that frequently they were invisible, lost in the folds of snow. Several dozen swooped out of a gust. Through snow on the windshield and snow driven in windy sheets we watched. Perhaps as many as two hundred birds drifted into the road and up the side of the opposite bank.

The wind ripped at the sage above them, hut here in the lee of the bank, in a sort of microclimate less severe than the white fury above, they fed, apparently on seeds; walked rather than hopped about, now in, now out of view in the white spirals the wind flung down the roadway. Now and again two males squared off in what seemed to be threat postures, head down, beaks open, wings laid back and fluttering slightly. There was some chasing presumably of MoCown’s females by males. A male pursued a female across the road and back again; then both flew down the road; the white area in the tail and the black terminal band were sharply revealed in flight; both vanished in the obscurity of snowdust. A female faced an approaching male; male promptly veered aside, lifting his wings slightly but enough to show the white linings momentarily.

About five minutes passed. When the squall abated, the birds moved in short flights above the road and along the bank; appeared restless. As the road ahead cleared, the birds arose above the sage and met the hard push of the wind. For a moment they hu~mg there, swinging sidewise, dark shapes moving at a cord’s-end, without advancing. Then in a slacking wind or in an extra spurt of driving power, they swept low over the sage and vanished. By the time we drove beyond the cutbank, though the storm had lifted somewhat, the birds had become indistinguishable from the driven gusts.

It is a bird of a landscape dominated by rolling prairies where sage and buffalo grass are the characteristic floristic types, and chestnutcollared Iongspurs, horned larks and sage grouse are the characteristic birds. Saunders (1912), riding on horseback across the divide between the drainages of the Dearborn and Sun Rivers, gives an excellent account of the approach to prairie habitat for which McCown’s seems to have a preference: “The rolling, round-topped hills changed to fantastically shaped, flat-topped, prairie buttes, the tall grass and blue lupine changed to short buffalo-grass and prickly pear, and the bird voices changed from Vesper Sparrows and Meadowlarks, to Horned Larks and McCown Longspurs.”

Called McCown’s bunting, rufous-winged lark bunting, blackbreasted longspur, black-throated bunting, and “ground larks” (Raine, 1892) by “the natives” at Rush Lake in Saskatchewan, in southern Alberta it is often “one of the few common, widespread birds of the open country” (Rand, 1948); sometimes “on flattopped prairie benches, this is the only bird found” in Teton and Northern Lewis and Clark counties (Saunders, 1914).

The monotypic status of Rhyncophanes mccownii has been questioned several times. In his general discussion of the genus Plectrophanes, S. F. Baird (1858) suggested in 1858 a new genus, Rhyncoph4nes. In his description of the species, Baird says: “The Plectrophanes Maccownii is quite different from the other species of the genus in the enormously large bill and much shorter hind claw, so much so, in fact, that Bonaparte places it in an entirely different family. As, however, many of the characteristics are those of Plectrophanes, and the general coloration especially so, I see no objection to keeping it in this genus for the present.”

Coues (1880) writes: “As Baird exhibited in 1858, there is a good deal of difference among the birds usually grouped with Plectroplu2nes rnvalis, enough to separate them generically in the prevailing fashion. * * * Maccown’s Bunting has precisely the habits of C. ornatus, with which it is associated during the breeding season in Dakota and Montana.”

When in 1946 Olin S. Pettingill, Jr., collected in Saskatchewan what proved to be a hybrid between the chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspurs, the problem was discussed again. Enumerating similarities and differences, Sibley and Pettingill (1955) argue that, despite the difference in the size of the bill, the point of distinction between the two longspurs, “It is demonstrable that it merely represents the extreme development in a graded series.” The authors conclude that “it seems doubtfully valid to separate the members of the genus Calcarius, including the Chestnut-collared, Lapland (C. lapponicus) and Smith’s (C. p. ictus) longspurs from the monotypic genus Rhyncophanes.” They recommend a return to the genus Calcari us.

Once the species ranged in the breeding season over the wide prairie interiors of the western United States and the southern expanses of the Canadian prairie provinces: Oklahoma (Nice, 1931), Colorado (Bergtold, 1928; Bailey and Niedrach, 1938), Wyoming (McCready, 1939; Mickey, 1943), Nebraska (Carriker, 1902), South Dakota (Visher, 1913, 1914), Minnesota (Brown, 1891; Currie, 1890), North Dakota (Allen, in Coues, 1874; Coues, 1878), Manitoba (Taverner, 1927), Saskatchewan (Raine, 1892; Macoun, 1909) and Alberta (Macoun, 1909).

If the foregoing is an indication of its former nesting grounds, then the breeding range of MeCown’s has been drastically reduced. It is no longer included among the breeding birds of Kansas (Johnston, 1964), if indeed it ever nested there, nor of Nebraska, where it is now designated a migrant and a winter resident (Rapp, Rapp, Baumgarten, and Moser, 1958).

In South Dakota it was last recorded by Visher (1914) in 1914; since 1949, no authenticated nesting has been reported (Krause, 1954; llolden and Hall, 1959). It vanished from the Minnesota scene after 1900 (Roberts, 1932) except for a single observation of two fall stragglers in October 1936 near Hassem (Peterson and Peterson, 1936). The first authentic specimen for Manitoba was not collected until May 1925 according to P. A. Taverner (1927); its status as a breeding bird in the province is at the moment unclear.

In North Dakota it has been reported from the southwest (Allen, in Coues, 1874), northeast (Peabody, in Roberts, 1932, at Pembina), and northwest (Coues, 1878). But Robert E. Stewart, wildlife research biologist of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center at Jamestown, writes me (1964): “During the first quarter of this century, the species gradually disappeared over the greater portion of its former range, leaving only a small remnant population of scattered pairs in the extreme western part of the State near the Montana line.” It is sobering to reflect on his next statement: “At the present time, there is some doubt as to whether McCown’s Longspurs breed anywhere in North Dakota, although spring and fall migrations are of regular occurrence in the western areas. If breeding populations are present they must be either very rare and local or irregular in occurrence. While searching for them during the past two summers, I have combed the native prairies in the northwest quarter of the State, but without success.”

At this writing, Montana seems to be the last stronghold of McCown’s longspur in the United States. Stewart (letter, 1964) says that it is “common and widespread over most of the short grass prairies” there; “in the northeast portion, considerable numbers may be found within 50 miles of the North Dakota boundary. On July 3, 1953, I made a detailed list count of breeding birds occurring in approximately 200 acres of lightly grazed short-grass prairie, located in Roosevelt County, about 18 miles northeast of Wolf Point.” How numerous McCown’s was in the study area as compared with other emberizine forms can be seen in Stewart’s list of relative abundance:

Savannah Sparrow 7 Clay-colored Sparrow 1 Chestnut-collared Longspur 44 McCown’sLongspur 20

Is it significant that this area of comparative abundance is contiguous to the area in the Canadian Provinces where McCown’s longspur still maintains itself with something of its former vigor? The center of population seems to be northeastern Montana westward, the adjacent regions in Saskatchewan from Willow Bunch northwest to Gull Lake and Golden Prairie, and the southeastern portion of southern Alberta. Whether the density of population is contiguous or broken into widely distributed breeding colonies seems not to be known. C. Stuart Houston writes me (letter, 1964) that in Saskatchewan there appears to be additionally a wide area of lesser density which apparently runs from Estevan northward to Fort Qu’Appelle, northwest to Outlook and Rosetown, and westward to the Alberta border. This would include the “elbow” region of the South Saskatchewan River.

In this “fringe” area the bird seems to show considerable fluctuation in numbers and in appearances in a given locality. M. Ross Lein (letter, 1964) says that in the Estevan region during the period 19 58:1962, “I never saxv a McCowu’s Longspur,” although he believes the bird may be resident but very much restricted. Writing about the South Saskatchewan River sector, Frank Roy (1958) comes to the conclusion that “longspurs, once the most common bird in the Coteau, are now a rare and local species.” However, in a letter (1964) he adds, “I now believe that the fluctuations in numbers in the area north of the South Saskatchewan River are attributable to the birds being near the edge of their normal range.”

Apparently McCown’s is a bird that responds to not easily discernible environmental changes. Perhaps this is involved in the unpredictableness of its appearances at certain times and in certain places. Although not enough data seem to be at hand to draw conclusions, it appears to arrive in numbers more often in dry years than in wet. Roberts (1932) says that it visited western Minnesota “only in dry seasons: when very dry it was most abundant, and in wet seasons it was entirely absent.”

In North Dakota Dr. and Mrs. Robert Gammell (letter, 1964), bird banders at Kenmare, are of the opinion that they secure MeCown’s “mostly during the dry years * * “‘. During the dry year of 1961 we caught 6 in July.” This is contrasted with years of average or above average moisture when one bird was banded in June in 1959 and none in the years 1960, 1962, 1963, and 1964 until August; after the breeding season, that is, and at the beginning of the flocking and migration period. Frank Roy (1964) states that its abundance in the “Elbow” region of Saskatchewan apparently depends on the year: an inference, I take it, to a wet or a dry year.

Another factor seems to complicate the problem. Writes Stewart (letter, 1964): “Certainly there seems to be ample habitat left, since large tracts of native prairie are still present in many areas, including the high, drier types that were preferred. * * * The reason for the gradual disappearance of this species in North Dakota is not apparent to me.” He adds: “Possibly, some subtle climatic change may be involved.”

Willard Rosine (MS) suggests that cert.ain of the emberizine forms, such as lark bunting and grasshopper sparrow, may detect minute and subtle changes in the complex of soil and vegetation as well of climate: changes too minute to be easily recognized: to which they respond. It may be that McCown’s longspur is a member of this group.

I have been thinking about the effects of fire in the regeneration of the prairie environment and whether this may be one of the “changes” involved here. Early travelers on the plains have left many and vivid depictions of “oceans of flame” rolling over the prairie swales, from Kansas (Sage, 1846) to the Canadian Provinces where Henry W. Hind (1860) describes one such holocaust which “extended for one thousand miles in length and several hundreds in breadth.”

In the last 40 years at least, agricultural methods have largely prevented uncontrolled prairie fires or have contained them to the smallest area possible. One wonders if fire and its effect on the grasslands’ environment, however minute and subtle, may be involved in the changing boundaries of the breeding range of McCown’s longspur; whether fire is implicated in the environmental requirements of this species as there is the possibility that it may be in the requirements of Kirtland’s warbler in Michigan (Van Tyne, 1953), although these have not yet been determined.

Nor can one ignore such factors as Frank Roy (1958) underscores in his query concerning the Coteau region of Saskatchewan: “Has cultivation brought about this rather sudden decline in the longspur population? Do newer methods of cultivation, and more frequent tilling to eradicate weeds, make it impossible for longspurs to rear their young in regions where they were abundant as recently as fifteen years ago?” Also the possible effects of aerial spraying, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers upon the vast and still somewhat mysterious complex of soil composition and vegetational relationships have still to be assessed.

Once McCown’s longspur apparently ranged a country where fences were farther apart than rivers or the far plateaus; today it nests where barbed and woven wire proclaim the domesticity of plowed acres. Once it bred on the plains where its associates included the antelope and the buffalo; today it is neighbor to the Hereford and the baby Angus.

Spring: Even while the blusters of spring are still raging on its summer range, McCown’s longspur leaves its wintering grounds. In Texas watchers report that it usually leaves the San Antonio region late in March or early in April (Dresser, 1865; N. C. Brown, 1882, 1884) and the western areas, such as Tom Green and Concho counties, in March (Lloyd, 1887). An occasional straggler might be encountered as late as May (Cruickshank, 1950). In Arizona it apparently departs the southeast region late in February (Monson, 1942) and the central east in March (Swinburne, 1888). In New Mexico H. K. Coale (1894) collected a pair in March 1892 near Fort Union in the northwestern part of the state while A. W. Anthony (1892) writes that he saw them only until February in the southwestern region.

Apparently McCown’s responds early to subtle environmental and physiological stimuli toward migration, for it arrives in numbers on “the Laramie Plains during the first week in April” (Mickey, 1943), in east and north central Montana from mid-April to the third week in the month (DuBois, 1937a; Saunders, 1921), in southwestern North Dakota at Dickinson between April 9 and May 3 (9 years, Sorenson, letter, 1964), and in the Regina, Saskatchewan, environs during the last two weeks of the month (Belcher, 1961). The earliest data for spring arrivals in southern Alberta seem to be that of the Macouns (1909) who saw two individuals at Medicine Hat Apr. 21, 1894. That same year Spreadborough (Rand, 1948) collected this species at the same place on April 26. These dates correspond pretty well with Margaret Beicher’s (1961) observations in the Regina, Saskatchewan, region where she cites Ledingbam’s April 15 as an early date (letter, 1964).

In Saskatchewan dates recorded by Belcher (1961) : the last two weeks of April: presumably hold comparatively true for that part of the province west and south of Regina. W. Earl Godfrey (1950) lists two adult male specimens in the National Museum of Canada taken at Crane Lake near the Alberta border Apr. 25, 1894.

In its usual penetration northward in spring McCown’s apparently stays well south of Saskatoon (Bremner, letter, 1965). Houston and Street (1959) have no records for the Saskatchewan River between Carlton and Cumberland. In the grasslands east and west of the “elbow” region of the South Saskatchewan River it still finds suitable habitat for breeding purposes, although Roy (1964) finds that it ranges “from rare to fairly common depending on the area and the year.” I am greatly indebted to C. Stuart Houston of Saskatoon and his indefatigable researches which include data on nearly all of my Saskatchewan references. On a vegetation distribution map C. S. Houston laid out the range of MeCown’s longspur in terms of greater and lesser densities of population. In a note (1965) he reminds me: “Notice how well range corresponds to yellow prairie area of enclosed map.”

Cameron ~(1907) regards McCown’s as “seemingly a most punctual migrant.” Writing about its spring appearance in Dawson and Custer Counties, Montana, he adds, “My notes give April 26, 27, and 29, for 1897, ’98 and ’99 as dates of first appearance.” Davis (letter, 1964) collected a specimen near Judith Gap on April 26.

In Montana McCown’s is frequently in the vanguard of spring, arriving during the last harsh vestiges of winter. Perley M. Subway (1902) in Fergus County remembers that:

It was on April 24, 1889, on a cloudy, raw afternoon, when I had gone out upon the neighboring bench to look for evidence of belated spring. In the bed of a miniature coulee that crossed my path was a bank of snow, sullenly giving way before the weak assaults of the advancing vernal season. Crouching under the lee of a small stone, and hugging the edge of the snow-bank, a new bird caught my eye. The stranger was apparently as interested in the featherless biped as I was in him, for be allowed me to approach until I could observe every detail of his handsome breeding plumage, so that there was no call for me to deprive him of the life he was supporting with so much hardihood along the line of melting snow. I can yet remember how the great tears crossed down my cheeks as I faced the raw south wind in my efforts to watch every movement of the longspur and to take in every detail of his dress. Presently I observed a second McCown’s longapur lurking near the first, the advance guards of the troops that were soon to throng the prairies to rear their broods.

The following Sunday afternoon * * * while walking over the bench I suddenly found myself in the midst of a flock of MeCown’s Longapurs. They were crouching silently in the hollows of the road and in depressions of the ground, and I was not aware of their presence until I startled several near me. When flushed at my approach, after sitting undisturbed until I was only five or six feet away from them, six or eight of them would flitter farther away, uttering a sharp chipping note as they flittered to stations beyond me.

When I discovered myself among them, by looking carefully around me I could see them crouched upon the ground on all sides of me, their gray attire assimilating them as closely with the background that only by their black crescentric breast markings could I detect them. Frequently, however, some of them would emit their chipping call in a gentle tone, and thus I could note their positions. In several instances there were fifty of the flock crouched around me, their black breasts showing as black spots on the dreary gray herbage and prairie soil.

E. S. Cameron (1907) who witnessed their arrival in Custer and Dawson counties in Montana says that “the birds scatter over the ground as they alight, hide in the horse and cattle prints, or other holes, and a]low themselves to be almost trodden upon before rising.”

Frances W. Mickey (1943), whose work on the breeding habits of McCown’s is the most complete study to date, describes the arrival near Laramie, Wyo. “By the third week in April large flocks of male longspurs were common. These flocks spent most of their time feeding. However, those among them who were selecting territories sang a great deal, not only in characteristic flight song, but also from perches on the tops of rocks or shrubs within their chosen areas.~’ Mickey observes that at about the time flight song is initiated and territorial selection begins, “scattered groups of females made their appearance. By the last of April the females became numerous. Later than this, females were seldom seen in groups, for the transients had moved on, and the resident females had separated and spread out over the areas being defending by singing males.”

Extremes for southern Wyoming are March 12 and April 24 (Mickey, 1943; McCreary, 1939). In Montana both sexes are common by the first week in May, with early arrivals berween April 13 and 18 in Teton county (DuBois, 1937), on April 22 at Terry, and April 28 at Big Sandy in the north central part of the state (Saunders, 1921).

In Alberta John Macoun (1909) found them “in thousands at Medicine Hat and numbers of males were in full song” on May 2,1894. In Saskatchewan C. G. Harrold (1933) found them “fairly common from May 20 to 26 in the Lake Johnston area south of Moose Jaw.” Macoun (1909) reports them as “common at Crane Lake in June”, presumably the first part of June. Crane Lake lies in the southwestern part of the Province north of Highway No. 1 at the village of Piapot. Early dates are Apr. 7,1947 and Apr. 16, 1948 at Bladworth, some 50 miles southeast of Saskatoon; however, P. L. Beckie (1958), an observer there, writes, “Although I often see the McCown’s in migration * * * I have no records of resident birds for this area.”

In these northern latitudes there are intriguing records of McCown’s wandering rather widely from its wonted purlieus. Macoun (1909) reports that “one was seen on the shore of an island in Lesser Slave Lake” and Salt and Wilk (1958) call attention to the fact that “wanderers have been taken * * * on an island in Lesser Slave Lake.” This is nearly 500 miles from what seems to be its area of greatest density in southeastern Alberta. Other points where McCown’s has been collected in the province are Beaverhill Lake and Sandy Creek near Athabasca, the first east and the second about 100 miles north of Edmonton. In British Columbia Major Allan Brooks (1900) took a male and two females “on the lower Fraser River Valley at Chiliwack”, the male on June 2, 1887, and the females on the same day, 1889. William Brewster (1893) acknowledged this unusual record in the AUK, adding Brooks’ postscript to the observation: “I passed this place every day but saw no others, either there or elsewhere in British Columbia.” Robert R. Taylor points out in a letter (1964) that during the summer of 1964 members of a party from the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History at Regina “collected a McCown’s longspur on the Hanson Lake Road, in northern Saskatchewan.”

In Alberta Salt and Wilk (1958) extend the range of McCown’s as far north as “Youngstown on the east” and “Calgary on the West.” The inclusion of Calgary brings up the matter of McCown’s somewhat erratic appearances and disappearance. In 1897 Macoun (1909) “Observed a number at Calgary, Alta., on June 19”; and Salt and Wilk (1958) report “Eggs *** (Calgary, May 28)”. Whether these records are sporadic appearances, a trait that seems characteristic of this species, is intriguing in the light of an observation by Timothy Myres of the University of Alberta at Calgary. Dr. Myres writes in a letter (1965) that “there is nothing known on McCown’s Longspur by local naturalists.”

Territory: As F. W. Mickey (1943) observed on the Plains of Laramie, during the third week in April with large flocks of males already present, the beginning of territorial selection soon became evident. Alert to their behavior on first arriving in Fergus County, Mont., Subway (1903) writes: This longspur appears in this locality late in April. At first the birds keep in flocks, sitting on the ground so closely that an observer can get among them without detecting their presence until he startles one or more almost under his feet. On such occasions the startled birds will fly a few feet, while the remainder of the flock will continue to crouch upon the ground. As the days pass, the males utter a low, trilling song, not greatly different from that of the horned larks. Soon the longspurs scatter over the prairie and the peculiar flight-songs of the males begin. Rising with twittering hurried chant after an ascent of a few yards, they will drop downward with out-spread, unmoving wings, uttering their gush of song, thus descending parachute-like to earth.

From shrubs, rocks and piles of stone as well as from the air, those males early inclined toward the selection of territory fling their chiming notes across the benches, proclaiming their chosen plots of prairie habitat. Mickey (1943) describes the activity: I am indebted to her “Breeding Habits of McCown’s Longspur,” a paper meaty with information about this subject:

The male proclaimed his right to a territory chiefly by a characteristic flightsong. In the early spring he was a persistent and exuberant singer. He mounted into the air, spread his wings and floated downward, repeating over and over the phrases of his song, see, see, see me, see me, hear me, hear me, see. Sometimes the bird did not alight after one descent, but rose immediately for another song.

The first males to settle in a region claimed territories that were larger than necessary. As more and more resident males arrived, they tried to establish themselves on ground already claimed by others.

The result was increased tension among the males and a subsequent squeezing” of available space into smaller and smaller units to accommodate the most recent arrivals. “The newcomers that I observed,” Mickey continues, “succeeded in holding the territories that they appropriated. As their territories decreased in size the birds increased the vigor of their defense, in order to keep an area of sufficient size around the nest from which the adults could secure the large quantities of food needed by the young nestlings and still be able to brood them for long periods.” Adjusted territories, in Mickey’s judgment, were seldom less than 250 feet in diameter. But such close proximity, wing by beak, as it were, was enough to increase the possibility of tension and the necessity for defensive behavior.

“For the male longspurs, who held small territories in areas where more birds congregated, the conspicuous flight-song and occasional chasing of an intruder were not sufficient to hold their territories; they often had to fight neighboring males. The bird defending a territory challenged the trespasser by flying at him, singing and rapidly fluttering his wings. If the intruding bird was easily intimidated, he was chased off the territory; if not, the two males rose in the air fighting.” Thus high above the grass and the blue lupine, where earlier the birds had performed in graceful solo, but now in fierce combativeness, “bill to bill, singing and fluttering their wings,” they disputed the patch of prairie habitat which for each, holding dominantly a mate and a nest, was “his.” Mickey describes the progress of one of these conflicts:

An interesting situation arose early in June, 1938, when a new bird, MlO, attempted to encroach upon the territory of an established bird, M2, at the same time and close to the same place that a nest was being constructed by M2’s mate. MIO was an aggressive bird and finally succeeded in establishing himself in a small area * * *~ When he secured a mate, it so happened that she chose a site for her nest close to the disputed boundary. On July 7, I watched these two pairs of birds for an hour or more. MlO was engaged in flight-song within his own territory when I arrived. After each descent, he hovered over the nest site, and then flew directly over into M2’s territory, uttering a sharp tweet -twur on the way. M2 immediately flew toward Mb, singing. They met head on and rose high in the air; then, bill to bill, singing lustily and with wings beating vigorously, they dropped to the ground, and each retired to his own territory. This performance was repeated eight times within twenty minutes.

Once boundaries were firmly laid out and apparently recognized by the adjoining claimants, an alert kind of truce apparently pre.. veiled, broken only now and again by aerial encounters. Not that this put a stop to the singing. On the contrary. Writes Mickey, “after longspurs settled on their territories, they sang from or over these areas at intervals throughout the day and well into the evening.” Thereafter apparently less and less energy was directed toward the maintenance of defensive attitudes and more and more toward the center of interest in the territory, the mate, and later the nest.

Courtship: Tn its own way, the courtship display of MeCown’s longspur, while it does not have the drama of the parachute descent, is in the terrestial world of buffalo stems, blue lupine and sage, a spectacle in minature. In early June A. D. DuBois (1937b) came upon a “very pretty demonstration” of this amatory manuevering: “On the ground *** a male McCown longspur pranced around his mate in a circle about one foot radius, holding the nearer wing stretched vertically upward to its utmost, like the sail of a sloop, showing her its pure white lining, while he poured forth an ecstatic song.”

It is the unexpectedness of the behavior that intrigues the beholder. The quick upraising of the dark wing and the sudden revelation of the white lining, shining silver in contrast to the darker body, is a rather astonishing performance, made all the more fanciful by the comparative diminutiveness of the actors. It reminds me of the courtship ballet of the buff-breasted sandpiper I saw in South Dakota where the male, with both wings elevated almost like an upland plover just alighting on the ground and the body held almost perpendicular, moved in a half-circle about the female, the white winglinings satin shiny beside the buff of the body.

On another occasion DuBois (1937b) “saw a male standing at rest on a rock, holding one wing aloft and singing softly. Presumably his mate was in the grass nearby. *** The same day I saw a female raise both wings and hold them quivering; and immediately her mate ran past her, singing, and hoisting his white sail toward her.”

F. W. Mickey (1943) tells about a male that “was frequently seen singing softly from the top of a small rabbitbrush, meanwhile making little bows to the female in the grass below. Occasionally, he would hold up one wing while he sang. At another time, while on the ground, he raised the wing nearest the female and held its silver lining before her. Then he ran over to the female; they both flew up and settled in the grass some ten feet away.~~ Sometimes what DuBois (1923) calls “a popular movie situation” develops where a second male intrudes upon the domesticity of a mated pair. One such incident occurred while nest building was still going forward; another took place so late in the season that the mated pair were brooding young.

Mickey relates how on May 20 she encountered a pair of McCown’s, apparently a mated pair. They were: feeding side by side at the edge of the field. The female flushed and was followed by the male; as they settled in the grass, another male alighted beside them. Both males rose fighting; finally one was driven off. The victorious male returned to the female, which had remained on the ground, and started bowing to her. The other male returned; again they fought and chased each other about until the female flew a short distance into the field. One male followed and dropped close beside her; the other perched on the nearby fence. On May 24, the nest in this territory was practically finished, but the two males were still fighting each other.

In this instance the affair ended somewhat inconclusively. Mickey says that “two weeks later, this nest was destroyed and one of the males disappeared.”

DuBois (1923) has an account of a Don Juan among the MeCown’s which apparently was undismayed by an advanced season or a female attentive upon a nest of young. DuBois writes:

This morning, while she stood in the garden with a grasshopper in her bill, an audacious stranger ran past her, making his bow with the wing nearer her. He quickly made another advance with the evident intention of bowing to her again, but she ran at him and drove him away. Her mate was on the nest, panting and sweltering in the hot sun while bravely shading the young. He seemed in a position to observe this attempted flirtation with his spouse, but he paid no attention to it. I afterward saw the stranger again. * * * This time [he] came marching into view ostensibly oblivious of the presence of the female which stood upon the rock at the edge of the garden. He made no advances toward her * * *~ But she flew at him this time also, and he went away.

Nesting: The nest J. A. Allen (Coues, 1874) discovered in North Dakota, July 7,1873, probably the first McGown’s longspur nest to be described, “was built on the ground and is constructed of decomposing woody fibre and grasses, with a lining of finer grasses.” Grinnell (1875), who encountered the species southwest of Fort Lincoln in North Dakota in 1874, found that the nest “resembles, both in position and construction” that of the Chestnut-collared longspur. In Minnesota Rolla P. Carrie (1890) found two nests: “Composed of fine round grasses and fine dried weed stems, lined with very fine grasses a few horse-hairs. One nest was on the ground in a clump of grass and the other in a small bush.” Currie’s observation is interesting; no where else have I found reference to McCown’s building a nest above the ground.

In Nebraska M. A. Carriker (1902) located a nest in the dry hills of the northwest corner of the state near the Wyoming line. The nest was “sunken flush with the surface of the ground and made of dried prairie grass blades and rootlets.” There was “no attempt whatever at concealment or protection by weed or tuft of grass.” DuBois (1935) and Mickey (1943) also remark on nests where concealment was at a minimum. DuBois writes that one such nest was placed “in a grazed pasture” with “no standing grass about it: just three or four scant shoots. At another the growing tufts nearby had been cropped off by stock.”

Of a nest in Fergus County, Montana, Silloway (1903) writes, “The site was a depression among grass-blades, open above. The nest was made of dried grass felted at the bottom with a few downy pistils, the style of architecture being very similar to that followed by the horned lark. The cavity was two and one-half inches in diameter and two inches in depth”. In Saskatchewan the Mocouns (1909) came upon a nest that was “a rather deep hole in the prairie, lined with a little dried grass.” And Barnes, quoted by Ferry (1910), took a nest on June 4 near Regina. “It was located in a depression near the road on the open prairie where there was practically no grass. It had been run over by a wagon, crushing the nest out of shape. The bird, however, was on the nest and the eggs were uninjured.”

DuBois (1935) speaks of the oddity of nests “placed near old dried heaps of horse droppings; one was a foot away, one was quite close, one was at the edge of such a point of vantage, while another was in the midst of a scattered pile which had become very dry and weathered.”

In Wyoming Mickey (1943) found that of a group of 40 nests, “nineteen were beside grass clumps, fifteen beside rabbitbrush, five beside horsebrush and one between rabbitbrush and horsebrush.” In Montana Silloway (1902, 1903) found nests in shallow depressions at the base of small Coronilla bushes. “A very common site,” he adds, “and one most generally selected by this longspur.” In Colorado Bailey and Niedrach (1938) found them frequently “beautifully placed near prairie asters, phlox, or flowering cactus.”

Where the advance of the plow has turned the short buffalo grass and blue-joint and sage into wheat and legumes, McCown’s longspur clings somewhat precariously to the transitional areas or edges. DuBois (1935) found a nest “in a narrow strip of sod between two wheat fields, at the extreme edge of the grass, against the bare dirt turned over by the plow; another was found in a strip between a wheat field and new breaking, while another, though in the prairie grass, was near the edge of the wheat field. Even more notable was a nest on a narrow dead furrow of prairie sod, missed by the breaking plows, in the middle of a field of winter wheat.” On the basis of such observations in Montana DuBois (1935) concludes, “no nests were found on cultivated ground.” However, C. G. Harrold (1933), reporting his experiences in the Lake Johns ton region south of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, during April and May, 1922, writes that the bird is “found chiefly in stubble fields on high ridges.”

Roberts (1932) says that in the last reports of the species in western Minnesota McCown’s nested “only in the high parts of wheat fields.” He quotes a letter from A. D. Brown who writes that after 1899 “only a few were seen, even when quite numerous, as it hid most of the time in the growing grain.” Margaret Belcher (1961), reviewing the opinions held by a number of writers that McCown’s prefers “the drier and more sparse prairie vegetation,” notes, “It is interesting that McCown’s longspurs in the Regina area nest regularly in the cultivated fields.” And in a letter (1964) she calls my attention to the report of George Fairfield on the breeding bird census conducted “in a 28-acre field of uncultivated prairie grassland at Moose Jaw.” G. Fairfield (1963), in commenting on “the McCown’s preferred nesting habitat,” says that no horned larks “or McCown’s were seen on the census plot, but a few of both species had territories on the plowed (summer-fallow) fields close by.”

Mickey (1943) found that “The majority of the nests were constructed entirely of grasses, the body consisting of coarse stems and blades, and the inner lining of finer grasses.” As exceptions, however, occasional nests contained bits of lichen, “shredded bark of horsebrush and rabbitbrush”, down feathers and tag-ends of wool, with one nest “lined entirely with wool.” Comments Mickey: “Very likely the nests constructed entirely of grass represented the primitive type of material used for nests before sheep, horses, and cattle were introduced into this region. However, when such materials as wool and hair became available, the birds made use of them.” She notes too that the birds collected “bits of wool which clung to the barbed-~e fence bordering the territories in which these nests were located.”

Not only does the female gather the nesting material within the territory but occasionally she helps to scrape out a shallow depression for the nest when such excavation seems necessary (Mickey, 1943; Subway, 1902). “A new nest was constructed for each brood,” writes Mickey, “usually at some distance from the old one, either within the previous boundaries of the territory or close enough to it so that, in uncrowded portions of the field, adjustments in the boundaries could easily be made.”

Bailey and Niedrach (1938) found that “It is an easy matter to locate nests * * * after the song perches have been discovered, for the females are almost sure to be tucked away in the near vicinity, and it is only a matter of walking about until they flush from under foot.” But, as they found, this is the beginning, not the end of the problem. Nests are hard to locate, they learned. “Even when in the open, cut by only a few blades of wiry grass, they are difficult to see.” To which Mr. Bent (1908) and DuBois (1937b) agree. In DuBois’ opinion, “Typical nests are not effectively hidden by grasses; but *** a nest may be effectively camouflaged by scant grass-clusters slanting over the top of it, or by dry blades of grass hanging loosely over it. It is surprising how few such blades are necessary to make an effective camouflage.”

Parasitism of the nests by cowbirds does occur although apparently only a few instances have been recorded. Currie (1890) in Minnesota found a cowbird’s egg in a nest from which he had removed four MeCown’s eggs the previous day. And John Macoun (1909) in Saskatchewan, in April 1894, discovered a cowbird egg in a nest of four longspur eggs.

Eggs: The usual number of eggs per clutch is three or four, occasionally five, though Sclater (1912) mentions six. Walter Raine (1892) says that in the nests he discovered at Rush Lake, southwest Saskatchewan, “the number of eggs to a clutch is usually five, sometimes only four. In my collection I have seven clutches of five eggs, and four clutches of four.” Farther west at Crane Lake Macoun (1904) found two nests with four eggs each. Brown (Roberts; 1932) reported 11 sets gathered in Minnesota between 1891 and 1899, of which 6 sets numbered three eggs each and 5 held four eggs each. Of 52 nests DuBois (1935) studied in Montana between 1915 and 1918, 24 had sets of three eggs, 26 had sets of four eggs and 2 contained sets of five eggs. In Oklahoma M. M. Nice (1931) found one nest with five eggs and one with six eggs.

Average size of eggs seems to vary from .80 by .65 inch, as reported by G. B. Grinnell (1875) from North Dakota, to .81 by .57 inch as measured by Brown (Roberts, 1932) of 11 sets in Minnesota. The 72 eggs Mickey (1943) recorded in Wyoming averaged .8089 by .6086 inch. Harris gives the average measurements of 100 eggs as 20.4 by 15.0 millimeters, with eggs showing the four extremes measuring p2.9 by 15.9, 18.8 by 14.6 and 19.8 by 13.7 millimeters.

Egg size and weight within a clutch may vary somewhat, according to Mickey (1943). At one nest she found that “one large egg was deposited the first day, followed on the second and third days by lighter, smaller eggs.” Concerning the egg weight Mickey (1943) writes: “Fresh eggs varied in weight from 2.3 to 2.5 grams; the average of six was 2.4. Eggs weighed the day before hatching varied from 1.7 to 2.15 grams; the average of seven was 1.914 grams. * * * The average total weight of a three-egg set was 7.21 grams as compared to 9.5 for a four-egg set and to 11.4 for the one five-egg set weighed.”

There seems to be some geographical variation in the ground color of the eggs. Raine (1892) found that in the eggs near Rush Lake in Sasketchewan “the ground colour varies from white to greyish white, pinky white, clay and greyish olive, usually boldly spotted with umber and blackish brown; many of the eggs are clouded over with dark purple grey which almost conceals the ground colour, and many of the eggs have scratches and hair-like streaks of brown.” The ground color of the eggs in the Brown (Roberts, 1932) collection from Minnesota is a “pale greenish-white of varying intensity, more or less obscured in three of the eleven sets by a buffy tinge.” In Wyoming Mickey (1943) discovered that “The ground color * * * vaned from white to pale olive. The markings consisted of various combinations of lines, scrawls, spots, and speckles of lilac, rustybrown, mahogany, and in one case black.” In general, Harris writes that “the ground may be grayish white or a very pale green such as ‘tea green.’ There is considerable variation in coloring and pattern.” Raine (1892) found one set near Rush Lake in Saskatchewan which “is remarkable in having all the markings at the larger end of the egg where they form a zone.”

The earliest date for full clutches of eggs is May 9 in a listing by DuBois (1935) for Montana, the latest being July 28. In the same state near Lewistown, Silloway (1903) reports a nest of three fresh eggs on May 29. In Wyoming, McCreary (1937) quotes Neilson as finding “full sets of 4 eggs near Wheatland by May 20.” Near Laramie, Mickey (1943) came upon a nest with one egg on May 20 and a full complement of four on May 25. She reports the latest date for a full clutch as August 6. In Saskatchewan, Raine (1892) “flushed a McCown’s longspur from its nest and five eggs” on June 10, 1891. Brown (Roberts, 1932) collected “five sets of eggs, all nearly fresh” in early June 1891 in Minnesota.

Apparently eggs are laid early in the morning. In a nest DuBois (1937a) visited “both morning and evening, they were laid before 6:00 or 7:00 a.m.” Mickey (1943) writes:

On July 8, 1939, at 7 a.m. I observed F18 flying about in small circles just above the top of the grass in the vicinity of her nest. When I came into the territory, she flew away. Then her mate flew around me as if he were trying to drive me off; so I walked a short distance away and sat down. About five minutes later the pair returned to the nest site; the female dropped into the grass, the male perched on top of a nearby rabbitbrush. After a while he dropped down and fed. I walked over and flushed the female from her nest, which contained one warm egg.

Incubation: DuBois (1937a) states that “the eggs are deposited at the rate of one each day” and “incubation begins when the last egg is laid.” There seems to be room for latitude here, for Mickey (1943) sees it differently. “It seemed to me that the birds were somewhat erratic in this respect; for I found that the eggs of a complement were not always deposited on successive days, nor did the female always wait for the completion of the clutch before starting to incubate.”

Incubation seems to be the duty of the female.> DuBois (1937a) writes, “I have never seen a male on the nest before hatching time,” and Mickey (1943) concurs: “I did not at any time flush a male from a nest containing eggs.”

Information on the length of the incubation period is confined to the detailed observations of Mickey (1943) who states, “I have data on two pairs that were successful in hatching more than one brood. Nests 3 and 23 were thought to be those of the same pair * * “. The length of the incubation period was twelve days. This was calculated from the laying of the last egg until the time of its hatching, from June 22 to July 4, at nest 3.” While the female incubates, “she turns around very often in the nest, and sometimes erects the feathers of her crown,” writes DuBois (1923). He adds, “the female sometimes sings at her nest when the male is approaching.”

During this period, writes Mickey, the male Iongspur spent a great deal of time (a) guarding the nest from some nearby rock or shrub, (b) engaging in flight-song, or (c) defending his territory, particulary if nests were close together.

Sometimes the male was seen guarding the nest during the female’s absence; at other times neither bird was near the nest. M4 was never in the vicinity of of the nest when the female was absent. M6 was usually on guard from a pile of stones close to the nest, not only while the female was off the nest, but also while she incubated. He often sang from this stone pile. Whenever I came near the nest * * * he either flew about over the nest or circled about in the grass nearby, making some pretense of collecting food.

Male longapurs sang during the incubation period, but with less intensity than prior to mating.

On one occasion DuBois (1923) watched while “a male came to the nest and presumably fed the female, for she was on the nest.”

On the hatching of the eggs Mickey (1943) writes:

On July 5,1938, at 6:30 a.m., after flushing the female from nest 9, I found that her eggs were in the process of hatching. One young bird had already emerged from the shell; its down was still wet and clinging to the body. There was a large hole in the side of a second egg, through which could be seen the bill and part of the head of its occupant. A small, circular, cracked area, not yet broken through, was observed in the side of a third egg. Sounds and faint tappings could be detected coming from the fourth egg. When I visited the nest the following morning, all four had successfully hatched.

DuBois (1923) observes that during the early stages of the second nesting young birds are sometimes seen near the nest. On June 28 he discovered “a young bird, fully grown and ‘on the wing'” on the ground near an incubating female, “presumably her offspring, from an earlier nest, although no more definite evidence could be secured to prove this assumption.” On June 29 at a second nest from which the female had been flushed, “Two birds, able to fly, were in the grass near her; the nest contains four eggs which are apparently incubated.” These eggs hatched on July 5.

In her studies on the Laramie Plains, Mickey (1943) found that climatic conditions might effect hatching success to a considerable degree, as might an increase in the number of predators in the area. During a three-year period, 11 of 45 nests were completely successful, 16 were partially successful, and 18 were failures. “A total of 153 eggs were deposited in 45 nests, averaging 3.4 eggs per nest. Of these 92, or 60 percent of the total number laid, were hatched; 71 birds, representing 46.4 per cent of the eggs laid, were fledged, giving an average of 1.58 birds per total nest, or 3.5 birds per successful nest.”

Young: Details concerning the young have been chronicled discerningly by DuBois (1937a) and Mickey (1943), especially by the latter who writes:

The young were hatched blind but not entirely naked, for the dorsal feather tracts were covered with long, huffy down. The skin appeared d&k where it was stretched over the body, yellowish where it lay in loose folds. The light, tan-colored egg-tooth was very prominent on the grayish bill. The egg-tooth was shed the fifth day. * * *

The nestlings were blind for two days. Occasionally on the third day they momentarily opened their tiny, slit-like eyes. By the fourth day they could keep their eyes open for several minutes, although, if undisturbed, they rested quietly in the bottom of the nest with eyes closed. On the fifth day they appeared much more alert for even though they sat quietly in the nest, they peered over the rim with bright, beady eyes.

When eight days old, the nestlings were no longer content to sit quietly in the nest, but moved about considerably, preening, stretching their necks, raising themselves up and fluttering their wings. By the ninth day, fear instinct was evident. Before this they had not been much disturbed at the weighing process but now they either crouched on the scale with neck drawn down between the scapulars, or fluttered about trying to escape, cheeping constantly. At this the adults became quite alarmed and circled low over the box containing the scales, uttering sharp alarm notes.

Regarding the progressive increase in the growth of feathers, DuBois (1937b) has this to say:

The newly hatched young, as soon as dry, are protected above by fluffy natal down, about one-fourth inch long, of a whitish buff or pale dead: grass color similar to that of young Desert Horned Larks. The invisibility afforded by this covering is truly marvelous. The skin is light-colored but reddish. The tongue and inside of the mouth are of a strong pink color, without spots or marks of any kind. This distinguishes them from young of Desert Homed Larks.

When the nestlings are four days old, the feathers of their underparts become well sprouted, forming a longitudinal band along each side. When six days old, the natal down of the upper parts has been pushed out on the feather tips so that the cowring is a combination of down and feathers. The young are well feathered at the age of eight or nine days.

Mickey adds:

By the sixth day, the feather tips had broken from all sheaths except those on the capital tract. Another day was needed for the head feathers to emerge, otherwise, on the seventh day the bird appeared well feathered. Down still clung to the head and occasionally to some of the back feathers on the eighth day. * * *

The wing feathers developed at a slightly different rate from those on the body proper. The developing flight feathers, enclosed in their sheaths, appeared on the wings on the second day. These sheaths grew from one-sixteenth of an inch on the third day to one-fourth of an inch by the fifth day. On the sixth day, feather tips had broken from the sheaths of the primary coverts and on the inner margins of the secondaries. * * * By the time the bird was ready to leave the nest, the feathers of the secondaries protruded one-half an inch beyond the end of the sheaths and those of the primaries one-fourth of an inch. The primary feathers of a bird captured when eighteen days old measured two inches in length.

The caudal feathers were the slowest of all to grow. The nestlings were six days old before the tail feathers could be measured. * * * The tail of an eighteenday-old bird measured one inch in length. At this time the characteristic color pattern of the tail was clearly indicated.

Early dates for the discovery of young in the nest appear in a tabulation by DuBois (1935) for Teton County, Montana. May 22 appears to be the earliest, other dates being May 26, 27, and 31. In the same state for Chouteau County, A. A. Saunders (1921) has May 23 as the first day on which young were found, but, he adds, “the young were already half grown,” which suggests a hatching date as early as May 18 or 19.

Care of the young is assumed by both male and female, especially during the nestling period. “The female brooded most of the first two days after the young hatched,” observes Mickey (1943), “but she was relieved at intervals by the male. From the third day on, more and more time was spent by both adults gathering food for the young and less time brooding them. During showers the female brooded the nestlings even after they were well feathered. At nest 22, where the female had either deserted or been killed while away from the nest, the male fed the young, but apparently failed to brood them during a downpour, for the young were found wet and dead after the rain.”

The young were shielded not only against the rain but against the heat of the July prairies also. DuBois (1923) has several notations regarding this behavior.

July 8. * * * The mother bird stood in the nest sheltering the young from the sun, hut she left every few minutes to go for food for them * *

As the parent stands on the nest in the hot sun, she usually keeps her mouth open, panting. Her breathing is rapid, and when there is no wind her puffing is audible * * *

The male, as well as the female, goes on the nest after feeding and stands with his wings partly spread, if the sun is hot, until his mate comes with more food to relieve him. She then takes his place and remains until he returns * *

July 12. This evening after supper I watched for awhile from the tent-blind. Both parents were feeding hastily and in rapid succession. A thunder shower was brewing, night was coming on, and drops of rain, striking the nestlings made them stretch up their heads and open their mouths when both parents were away. The female sat on the nest a few minutes between meals, and the thunder did not seem to startle or disturb her * * *

The position of the male while brooding is to stand astride the nest with a foot on each side, at the rim, the young filing the cavity between. Once, while the female was brooding, the male came with food which he fed to the young at her side. At another time under similar circumstances he gave the food to his mate and she fed it to the young under her breast, the food being nearly always grasshoppers. On one occasion, after feeding, the female stood at the edge of the nest facing the young, and, stooping over them, sang a little warble close to their beads while the male was approaching with another ration. She was obviously tired and sleepy, as she frequently yawned and dozed while brooding in the short intervals between feedings.

At another nest on July 8, Duflois (1923) found “at noon the male standing in the nest with his feathers all ‘fluffed up’, shading the young from the hot, penetrating rays of the noonday sun.” Mickey (1943) observed a similar position in the female which straddled “the nest while brooding. She placed one foot on either side of the rim of the nest.”

For about half of their nestling life the young are brooded at night also, as Mickey learned:

On the night of July 10, 1938, my husband and I visited the field at ten o’clock. We had previously marked the nests so that they could be found easily in the dark. When a nest was located, a flashlight was turned on it. The young birds in nest 9, which were five days old, were being brooded. The adult bird left the nest, but the young birds did not open their eyes. The seven-day-old nestlings in nest 3 were not being brooded. The adults were on the ground in the immediate vicinity. The male, evidently disturbed, sang a short snatch of song. From this night visit it seems that the young birds are brooded at night until they are well feathered, or until about six or seven days old.

Both DuBois (1923) and Mickey (1943) agree that the young are fed insects from the very start and that the food is not regurgitated. Both parents feed the young. “Moths and grasshoppers furnished the bulk of the food,” says Mickey. In addition to this menu DuBois includes larval worms. On one occasion, he adds, “I thought I recognized a spider as it went into one of the throats.” He declares the female gives as a food call “a brief twitter. The young, which must be less than twenty-four hours old, have a note which can be easily heard from the tent: it is a clear ‘peep.’ They frequently give utterance to it while their mother is standing in the nest shading them.” As they grew, “the food call of the young longspurs,” Mickey notes, “changed from the continuous chippering of the nestling to the shriller intermittent call of the fledgling.”

Mickey (1943) weighed and tabulated the young from 13 nests. The minimum weight of nestling at hatching was 1.6 grams, the maximum was 2.9 grams, while the average was 2.03 grams. Sometimes a nestling had to cope with the drawback of hatching out a day later than its nest mates. “A nestling never overcame such a handicap,” states Mickey; “in fact, it often did not make normal daily gains in either weight or length. * * * The chances of the survival of these underlings were closely associated with the amount of food that they received. In cases where the adults did not respond readily to their weaker food calls, they died either before leaving the nest (as in the nests 24 and 28), or shortly afterward (as the one from nest 3, which was found dead six inches from the nest).”

Sanitation of nests is maintained by both parents. “The nests are kept quite clean until the last two days of nest life,” reports Mickey. “By this time the young so filled the nest cavity that an occasional excrement sac was often overlooked. * * * Ants were omnipresent. From the observation blind at nest 13, the female was seen picking them from the young and out of the nest.” DuBois (1923) has these additional notes on sanitation: “The excrement is sometimes swallowed and sometimes carried away, the two methods in about equal proportions. * * * At this state of the development of the young (age six days) the parents begin carrying the excrement away from the nest, after one feeding the male being observed to fly away with it, but at the next trip he swallowed it as formerly. * * * The practice of swallowing excrement has been entirely discontinued.

It is being carried away and is usually dropped while the bird is on the wing.”

The solicitude of the male and the female for the young increases as the nestlings become more and more feathered. DuBois (1937a) writes:

When I caught a fledgling near nest 59, on the day it left, * * * its father flew at my head, excitedly singing the trio of notes that is so characteristic. One day I managed to catch a youngster that was an excellent runner. Upon turning it loose I gave forth the most distressing squeaks of which I was capable. Quickly five adults appeared upon the scene and tried to lead me away. They alighted approximately in a row, well deployed, as though for battle; and when I followed, they all ran through the grass ahead of me, in company front, in a manner that was very amusing.

Mickey (1943) found that an incubating female would normally leave the nest and settle in the grass some distance from her nest during my visit to it. The brooding female would leave the nest if disturbed, but fed close by. By the time the nestlings were nine days old, both adults kept close to the nest during my visit, alternately feeding nearby and circling low over the nest, uttering sharp calls. On the day the young left the nest, both adults continually flew about me calling, chip-pur-r-r-r chip-pur-r. They were just as excited at my intrusion on the following day, although later than this I did not notice any anxiety on the part of the adults, unless I accidentally flushed a young bird.

In their Montana and Wyoming observations, DuBois (1935) and Mickey determined that, with some exceptions, the normal period of nestling life was 10 days. At that time the nestlings “can run at a lively rate, fluttering their wings if pursued,” says DuBois. “Two days later (age 12 days), as observed at nest 59, they are able to fly for short distances.” One bird in Mickey’s study area, an 11-day-old fledgling, had a very weak flight but “in another day it could fly thirty feet or more.” A fledgling DuBois (1923) caught 6 feet from the nest on the 10th day, when released scrambled “over the ground at a lively rate, fluttering its wings as it runs, although it is not very large.” Two days later he concluded his notations with: “The young longspurs are now able to fly for short distances.”

Plumages: The following descriptions appear in iRidgway (1901):

Tail (except middle pair of rectrices) white, broadly tipped with dusky.

Adult mole in summer: Forehead and anterior portion of crown, more or less distinct rictal streak, and crescentic patch across chest, black; posterior portion of pileum and hindneck pale brownish gray, streaked with dusty, especially the former; back and scapulars, pale wood brown, or pale huffy brown, broadly streaked with dusky; rump and upper tail-coverts grayer (especially the latter), less distinctly streaked; more anterior lesser wing-coverts ash gray with dusky (mostly concealed) centers; posterior lesser coverts and middle coverts chestnut; rest of wing grayish dusky with pale brownish gray edgings, the primaries narrowly edged with white (outer web of first primary almost entirely white), the greater coverts and secondaries rather broadly (but no distinctly) tipped with white; middle pair of rectriocs dusky grayish brown margined with paler; rest of tail white, broadly tipped with dull black, except outermost rectrices, where the blackish, if present, is very much reduced in extent; under parts (except chest) white, tinged with pale gray laterally, the plumage deep gray beneath the surface; bill brownish, dusky at tip; iris brown; tarsi brown; toes dusky.

Adult male in winter: Black areas concealed by broad tips to feathers, brown on pileum, buff y on chest; otherwise not essentially different from summer plumage.

Adult female in summer: Above, light buffy brown (pale wood brown or isabella color), streaked with blackish, the streaks broadest on back and scapulars; wings dusky, with light buff y brown edgings (broadest on greater coverts and tertials, narrower, paler and grayer on primaries, aud primary coverts), the middle coverts broadly tipped with buff y, the lesser coverts pale brownish gray; tail as in adult male; sides of head (including broad superciliary stripe) light dull huffy, relieved by a rather broad postocular streak of brownish; under parts pale buff y, passing into white on abdomen and under tail-coverts; a brown or dusky streak (submalar) along each side of throat.

Adult female in winter: Similar to summer plumage, but dusky streaks on back, etc., narrower and less distinct, and under parts rather more strongly tinged with buffy.

Young: Back, scapulars, and rump dusky, with distinct pale huffy margins to the feather; pileum and hindneck streaked with dusky and pale huffy; middle wing-coverts broadly margined, and greater coverts broadly tipped with pale buffy or huffy whitish; chest rather broadly streaked with dusky; otherwise much like adult female.

Food: The principal items in the diet of McCown’s longspur, according to Roberts (1932), consists of weed seed: pigweed, ragweed, bindweed, goosefoot, wild sunflower, sedges, foxtail, and other grass seeds; grain; grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects. On their wintering grounds in New Mexico A. L. Heermann (1859) says that the birds include berries in their diet. Richard 11. Pough (1946) states that “Grasshoppers are generally their staple summer food, seeds of grasses and weeds at other seasons.” DuBois (1937a) considers the food of the young to be principally grasshoppers “with now and then a moth or a caterpillar.” Mickey (1943) lists the grasshoppers which seemed to predominate in the bulk of the food: Arphia pseudonietanus, Gamnula pellucida, Melanoplus Jemur-rubrum, and Trimerotropis sp.

From such data one can only conclude that economically McCown’s longspur is to be counted among the beneficial species of birds, despite the comment of Arthur L. Goodrich, Jr. (1946) on wintering birds in Kansas: “It is reported that this race and other longspurs may be responsible for the destruction of large quantities of winter wheat in some areas of the west.” Perhaps the subject has not yet been sufficiently investigated.

Behavior: The following account by Grinnell (Ludlow, 1875) suggests the kind of mate attachment in McCown’s attributed to the mated Canada goose and the bald eagle pair. He writes: The male and female manifest an unusual degree of attachment for one another. While watching them feeding in the early morning, for they were very unsuspicious and would allow me to approach within a few yards of them, I noticed that they kept close to one another, generally walking side by side. If one ran a few steps from the other to secure an insect or a seed, it returned to the side of its mate almost immediately.

On one occasion, a pair were startled from the ground while thus occupied, and I shot the female. As she fell, the male which was a few feet in advance, turned about, and flew to the spot where she lay, and, alighting, called to her in emphatic tones, evidently urging her to follow him, lie remained by her side until I shot him.

Nest tenacity, developed to a high degree in the female of this species, is described by Raine (Macoun, 1908), DuBois (1937a) and Mickey (1943). “The female is a close sitter, not leaving the nest until the intruder has stepped close up to it,” declares Raine.

Mickey (1943) remarks on the bird’s awareness of the human gaze. “I was standing less than a foot from the incubating bird when I saw her. Not until I looked directly at her did she fly.”

DuBois (1937b) describes a female apparently employing pretended food hunting as a distraction display. “After I had flushed her from the eggs, and had been seated for some time at the nest, she approached and deported herself very much as do the larks, running in the grass and pretending to hunt food, while she watched me.”

Both male and female sometimes display remarkable intrepidity. DuBois (1923), taking pictures and having his camera set up near the nest, was surprised at the male’s lack of concern. “He now permits me to sit at the camera, which is only three or four feet from him, as he stands or sits on his brood.”

At a pond in north central Montana in 1911 Saunders (1912) found horned larks and McCown’s longspurs feeding about the edge, “the longspurs walking daintily over the green scum at the edge and eating the small insects that swarmed there. Several young longspurs, barely able to fly, were here with their parents, and one such had evidently come to grief in its efforts to imitate its parents’ example, and was drowned in the midst of the scum.”

In eastern Alberta, A. L. Rand (1948) saw McCown’s longspurs fly in “commonly to drink at the irrigation reservoirs, along with horned larks and the chestnut: collared longapurs.”

G. B. Grinneil (Ludlow, 1875) asserted that he “did not see these birds hop at all. Their mode of progression was a walk rather hurried, and not nearly so dignified as that of the cow-bunting Ibrownheaded cowbird].”

Where Grinnell in 1874 found this species “unsuspicious” and fairly easy to approach on the prairies of southwestern North Dakota, Bailey and Niedrach (1938) in 1936 and 1937 found them “extremely wild” in northeastern Colorado.

Voice: To the dweller on the north central great plains, few experiences after a long hard winter equal the pleasure and the promise of the song bursts of certain early spring birds. Chaucer had his “smale foule” which “maken melodie” but the prairie-dweller has his horned larks and Sprague’s pipits with their spectacular singing flights high aloft, seemingly cloud-high, and their dizzy plummeting to earth. He has his lark buntings and chestnut-collared longspurs with their less spectacular but more graceful and butterfly-like descent to earth, bubbling with sound. With them McCown’s forms a trio in the grace and musical quality of the aerial performances.

Writes P. M. Subway (1902) of Montana:

In a wagon trip across many miles of prairie in the last week of May 1899 I was regaled by the well-known flight-songs of the males of this species. Numbers of them were frequently seen in the air at one time, some of them mounting upward in irregular, undulating, star-like lines of movement, pouring forth their hurried bursts of song; others could be seen floating downward with out-spread, elevated wings, uttering their ecstatic measures as they slowly floated to earth without moving a feather.

E. S. Cameron (1907) recalls that near Terry, Montana, “On June 22, 1894, I had ample opportunity for observing this species, as, my horse having run away, I was compelled to walk home, ten miles across the prairie. My way was enlivened by the handsome males, which hung above me, before sinking into the grass with a burst of song.~~ One of the earliest to describe the song of McCown’s longspur was George Bird Grinnell (Ludlow, 1875). Traveling as zoologist with the Custer Expedition into the Black Hills in 1874, on observing the bird near Fort Lincoln (present day Bismarck) in North Dakota, he calls it “by far the most melodious songster” on “the high dry plains. It rises briskly from the ground, after the manner of C. bicolor until it attains a height of 20 or 30 feet, and then, with outstretched wings and expanded tail, glides slowly to earth, all the time singing with the utmost vigor.”

In July of 1911, Aretas A. Saunders (1912) took a horseback ride “nearly across the State of Montana”: one of those adventures which the more sedentary only dream about. In the flat open prairie of Broadwater County where the “principal vegetation was buffalo-grass and prickly pear,” he found McCown’s longspur in full song, a charmingly sweet song, that tinkled across the prairie continually and from all sides. The song has been compared to that of the Horned Lark, but to my mind it is much better. The quality is sweeter and richer; the notes are louder and clearer, and above all, the manner in which it is rendered is so different from that of the lark or of any other bird, that the lark passes into insignificance in comparison. The song is nearly always rendered when in flight. The bird leaves the ground and flies upward on a long slant till fifteen or twenty feet high, then spreads both wings outward and upward, lifts and spreads its white tail feathers, erecta the upper tail coverts and feathers of the lower back, and bursting into song, floats downward into the grass like an animated parachute, singing all the way.

In Teton County, Montana, DuBois (1937b) also noted the parachute-like descent as well as “the usual song,” which he says, is a variety of warbles, clear and sweet. It is a joyous song. In the height of the nesting season it ripples through the air from many directions. It is usually delivered in course of a special flight.

The song-flight is a charming feat of grace. The male bird flies from the ground, in gradual ascent, to a height of perhaps six or eight yards, then spreads his white-lined wings, stretching them outward and upward, and floats slowly down to earth like a fairy parachute made bouyant with music. He continues to pour forth his song all the way down into the grass, and seems to swell with the rapture of his performance. Sometimes the descent is perfectly vertical. The song is delivered both while fluttering the wings and while making the parachute descent. The birds let their legs hang down beneath them while in flight. The floating descent was unique in my experience with birds, for though the Chestnut-coilared Longspur also has a songflight, it lacks the parachute descent.

In two records DuBois (1923, 1937a) describes a characteristic feature of the song: “Occasionally, while the bird is in the air, he utters a trio of staccato notes, each of decidedly different pitch, and separated by equal time intervals. The three notes are louder than the usual song; they are so short and clear, and have so pronounced a pause between them that the effect is very striking.”

In the Prairie Provinces of Canada Raine (1892) seems to be the first to mention the song of this longspur. In June of 1891 near a slough north of Moose Jaw, he found the song “very cheering * * * the male always sings as he descends to the ground with outstretched, motionless wings.” Mr. Bent (1908), investigating the prairies in the vicinity of Maple Creek in southwestern Saskatchewan in 1905: 06, considered McCown’s song similar to the chestnut-collared longspur’s “but somewhat louder and richer”. The male “rises slowly and silently to a height of 10 or 15 feet and then floats downward, on outstretched wings and widespread tail, pouring out a most delightful, rich, warbling, bubbling song.” But Harrold (1933), while mentioning the “remarkable butterfly-like flight”, says that the song “consists of only a few notes one of them having a peculiar squeaky sound quite unlike that of any other bird in tune.”

Olin S. Pettingill, Jr., (Sibley and Pettingill, 1955) describes the mechanics of the flight, comparing it with the chestnut-collared longspur s.

The flight songs of typical McCown’s and Chestnut-collared longspurs differ in movements and in song pattern. Both species fly gradually upward, their wings beating rapidly. From the peak of the ascent MeCown’s proceeds to sail downward abruptly with wings held stiffly outstretched and raised high above the back. The Chestnut-collared, after reaching the peak of the ascent, prolongs the flight by circling and undulating, finally descending with the wings beating as rapidly as before. Both species sing after the ascent, but the song of the McCown’s is louder with the notes uttered more slowly.

During the peak of breeding intensity, as calculated by Mr. Bent (1908), “the male makes about three song flights per minute, of about 8 or 10 seconds duration, feeding quietly on the ground during the intervals of. 10 or 12 seconds.”

A. A. Saunders, remembering his days in Montana, writes in a note that the general quality of the song is “sweet and musical, and is a broken warble, that is a group of several rapid, connected notes, then a short pause and another group, and so on to the end of the song. In this the song differs from the Chestnut-collared Longspur, whose song is continuous, without a break. It also differs in that the general pitch is maintained at about the same level throughout the song, where that of the Chestnut-collared grades downward in pitch.”

DuBois (1923) seems to be the only observer to record singing in the female. In Teton County, Montana, from a tent which served as a blind, he kept a series of nests under surveillance. On July 2, 1917, watching a female incubating, he notes, “I was surprised to hear her begin to sing. She sang a very pleasing little song.” On July 5 when the male approached, “she again sang a little twittering, musical song.” DuBois takes into consideration that at each of these occurrences the male was near. In the first instance, at the close of the song he saw the male drop suddenly into view; “he walked up to her and gave her a large insect, apparently a grasshopper with amputated legs.” In his detailed study of 61 nests over three seasons (1915, 1916, 1917) Dubois mentions the female singing only in this one instance.

Though Saunders’ (1922) observation lead him to believe that this species “sings from a perch only rarely” and that “the Chestnutcollared Longspur * * * sings from a perch more frequently than McCown’s, but still rarely,” he writes in a later note that occasionally McCown’s will sing from “a wire fence or a stone.” Salt and Wilk (1958) note in Alberta, that in its choice of song sites McCown’s is similar to the chestnut-collared longspur’s. “Both prefer low perches either on the ground or on a fence but not on bushes.” The last part of the observation is interesting in its difference from the experience of Mickey (1943) who found in her Wyoming study that perches included shrubs as well as rocks and in one instance the top of a stone pile. She mentions the rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus sp.?) specifically.

In Montana, DuBois (1923) discovered that a favorite singing spot was often a rock. Apparently some individuals are more concerned about its actual location than in the kind of perch they choose. Thus DuBois noted that the male of one nest under observation “has an habitual perch on an old kettle which has lodged at the edge of the garden some twenty feet from the nest. The kettle and Longspur combination, although perhaps picturesque, struck me as rather incongruous and I replaced the kettle by a rock which pleased me better and seemed to suit the Longspur just as well. He came repeatedly to perch there after descending from his song flight or return * * * ,, ing from an absence In May 1899 in Montana, Subway (1902) found the longspurs singing from the ground. A concentration remained hidden by the blending of their coloration with the background of bare gray ground and last year’s dead vegetation:

When * * * about sixty yards to one side of their position, I was attracted by a series of strange songs, uttered with unusual force. Walking in the direction of the unfamiliar music, I found that the Longspurs were the authors, and for many minutes I watched different songsters twittering their pretty little songs. The performance was a continuous chatter, having some resemblance to portions of Meadowlark music. It was quiet similar to the continuous, hurried measures of the Homed Larks, though louder and clearer. In some instances the performer uttered the act of singing while pecking for seeds among the dead herbage, thus showing a further resemblance in habit to the Homed Larks. A noticeable feature of the performance was the movements of the white throats as the spirited measures bubbled forth.

Field Marks: Silloway (1903) describes the male as: “Upper parts chiefly grayish brown, streaked with darker; top of head, and large crescent on breast, black; wing coverts reddish-brown; lower parts grayish white.” ïDuBois (1937b) has this description of the female:

The upper surface of the head is uniformly covered with faint, fine, wavy streaks * * *. The face has a huffy appearance, with a line over the eye that is more whitish. * * * The throat is white. There is just a faint suggestion of darker gray on the breast where the black patch adorns the male. The wrist of her wing shows a little of the reddish brown “shoulder” patch worn by her mate. * * * When the bird takes flight, she shows, conspicuously, an almost black T-shaped design at the end of the white spread tail. The sexes are alike in this tail pattern, which constitutes the best field mark.

Enemies: Various plundering marauders play havoc with the nests and eggs of McCown’s longspurs. DuBois (1937a) relates that in Montana “carcasses of [Longspurj fledglings were seen at a Shorteared Owl’s nest, and at a nest of Swainson Hawks” but concludes that raptores were in general “almost neglible factors in the lives of the longspurs at this place.” Among the mammals considered predatory, DuBois points his finger at the weasel and the skunk. He adds, “Punctured eggs or broken shells showing tooth marks, noted in several instances, were thought to be the work of the common ground squirrels [the thirteen-lined (Oitellu.s tridecemlineatu.s) and Richardson’s (C. ri,cluxrdsonii)], though I have never caught one of these rodents in the act of plundering a nest. Whenever a ground squirrel approached a nest, the longspurs drove him away by swooping at him repeatedly, sometimes actually striking his back.” Adds Mickey (1943), “On several occasions the birds were seen hovering over a ground squirrel, chirping and darting at it in an effort to drive it away from the nest site,” suggesting that the birds recognize these animals as predators.

While the elements and the animal predators undoubtedly take a yearly toll of McCown’s longspurs, the species has been subject to their onslaughts for millenia with little evidence of any serious reduction of the population. The real threat, whether recognized, minimized, or ignored, as DuBois (1936), states, is man: “man whose poisoned baits set out for ground squirrels apparently kills more birds than spermophiles.” Man with his plow and his agricultural achievements: “Many nests were of course plowed under by the breaking plows of pioneer farmers,” DuBois remembers. “I have seen one or two go over with the turning sod, when it was too late to prevent it.”

To DuBois’ list of enemies Mickey (1943) adds the cat, the badger (Taxideo~ taxus), and among birds the prairie falcon and western crow. “A pair of Swainson’s Hawks, Bufso s”wairtsoni, and a pair of Marsh Hawks, Cir~cus hudsonius, were frequent visitors to this field. They swooped over the field in search of rodents, quite indifferent to the smaller birds. A Prairie Falcon, Falco mexicanus, occasionally visited the field, but did not seem to bother the longspurs. Sometimes the longspurs ignored the hawks, but oftener a group of birds would rise and twitter noisily as they flew around the hawk. * * * Although I did not actually witness any depredations by the crows, it is my belief that they were responsible for the disappearance of some of the eggs and young of the smaller birds.”

Frequently the forces of nature itself are antagonistic. Unseasonably cold rainstorms and late spring snows often bring disaster to the young of McCown’s longspur. DuBois (1937a) describes a Montana storm that brought a deep fall of snow on May 25 and continued into the 26th.

I had previously marked a nest in which the bird was known to have begun incubating her four eggs on the morning of the 111th. The snow covered everything so completely that I could not find my marker; but in the afternoon of the 26th the marker-rock showed through the melting snow, and I uncovered the nest. The eggs had been in cold storage all of one day and part of another; but an hour or two after the nest was uncovered the female was sitting on the eggs. She continued to incubate until the 8th of June. That day she was absent morning and evening, though in the nest at noon. Before my return early the next morning the eggs and nest had been mysteriusly destroyed. The bird had continued incubation about nine days beyond the normal period. Perhaps it was her first experience with eggs under snow.

Fall: No sooner are the fledglings on the wing, fortified against the ardors of the migration journey, then they begin the annual flocking. In the Canadian Provinces the gathering begins by the first of August; by the early part of the month, writes Mr. Bent (1908), in southwestern Saskatchewan “almost all of the Longspurs of both species, had disappeared from the plains.”

As they continue their southerly movement, their ever-increasing numbers growing larger and larger, they string out over the prairies like tiny black pepper kernels flung across the sky, rising up high and thickening darkly into compact groups, masses twisting and turning, then slanting down, lightening as they thin out, sometimes so near the ground that an obstruction like a fence sends them bending upward to flow serpentlike over the obstacle; at other times they sweep tree-high from one seed-rich area to another. At last the groups swell into the hundreds, so that by the time they leave southern Montana in September they are seen in immense congregations like that which P. M. Thorne (1895) reports on the Little Missouri in 1889.

After August 10, Visher (1912) considered them numerous on the plains of south central South Dakota in the years from 1901 to 1911. In Montana, Saunders (1921) has a September 27 date for the north central portion. By September the birds have reached Oklahoma (Sutton, 1934) although W. W. Cooke (1914) during 1883: 84 dates the arrival there as January 19. By October 16 they have arrived in Arizona and by November 5 (Lloyd, 1887) in the western part of Texas. Here as well as in New Mexico and northern Old Mexico they await the stimulus that will send them north again.

Winter: A. L. Heermann (1859) who was with the topographical surveyors along the 32nd parallel of north latitude during the season of 1873: 74 declares: “I found this species congregated in large flocks * * * engaged in gleaning the seeds from the scanty grass on the vast arid plains of New Mexico. Insects and berries form also part of their food, in search of which they show great activity, running about with ease and celerity. From Dr. Henry, U.S.A., I learned that in spring large flocks are seen at Fort Thorne, having migrated hither from the north the fall previous.”

George B. Sennett (1878), who was on the lower Rio Grande during the season of 1877, writes of McCown’s longspur:

I found these only about Galveston. They were in large flocks, and associated with them were Erenwphila chrysoloema, Southwestern Skylark, and Neocorys spraguii, Missouri Skylark. They frequented the sandy ridges adjoining the salt-marshes. In habits they reminded me of P. lapponicus, Lapland Longspur, as I saw them in Minnesota last year. When flushed, they dart from side to side, taking a swift, irregular course, never very high, and suddenly drop down among the grass-tussocks, with their heads towards you. They are so quiet and so much the color of their surroundings that they are seen with difficulty. They fly in such scattered flocks that a single discharge of the gun can seldom bring down more than one or two. That they extend farther south than the vicinity of Galveston I very much doubt, for we would, in all probability, have noticed them if they had been farther down the coast.

In winter its peregrinations must occasionally have been extensive, for Coale (1877) has a note about its appearance at Champaign and Chicago, Illinois, which suggests a field of study as yet largely untouched:

While looking over a box of Snow-buntings and Shore Larks in the market, January 15, 1877, I found a specimen of Plectro phones maccowni, shot at Champaign, Illinois. January 17, another box containing Lapland Longspurs was sent from the same place, and among them was a second specimen of P. moccowni, which is now in the collection of C. N. Holden, Jr., Chicago. January 19 I obtained a third specimen from the same source, which has been sent to Mr. E. W. Nelson, of this city. They were all males, showing plainly the chestnut coloring on the bend of the wing and the peculiar white markings of the tail. This is, I think, the first record of the occurrance of this bird in Illinois, if not east of Kansas.

That some birds may overwinter within the breeding range or near its borders is indicated by the Christmas Bird Counts listing 200 birds from Huron, S. Dak., in 1953 and 15 from Billings, Mont., in 1956.

Range: Southern portions of Prairie Provinces south to northeastern Sonora, northern Durango, and southern Texas.

Breeding range: McCown’s longspur breeds from southern Alberta (Calgary, Medicine Hat), southern Saskatchewan (Davidson), southwestern Manitoba (Whitewater Lake), and central northern North Dakota (Cando) south to southeastern Wyoming (Laramie), northeastern Colorado (Pawnee Buttes), northwestern Nebraska (Sioux County), and central North Dakota (Fort Lincoln); formerly east to southwestern Minnesota (Pipestone County).

Winter range: Winters from central Arizona (Camp Verde), southwestern, central, and northeastern Colorado (Durango, Fort Morgan), west-central Kansas (Hays), and central Oklahoma (Cleveland County) south to northeastern Sonora (Pozo de Luis), Chihuahua, northern Durango (Villa Ocampo), and southern Texas (Rio Grande City, Corpus Christi, Galveston).

Casual records: Casual in southern British Columbia (Chilliwack), Oregon (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge), Idaho (Birch Creek), northern Alberta (20 miles south of Athabaska Landing), and Illinois (Champaign).

Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Wyoming: Cheyenne, March 12 (average of 9 years, April 14); Laramie, April 6.

Late dates of spring departure are: Minnesota: Lac Qui Pane County, May 8. Texas: Amarillo, April 4; Austin, March 27. Oklahoma: Camp Supply, March 8. Kansas: northeastern Kansas, April 3 (median of 5 years, February 17). New Mexico: Fort Union, March 22. Arizona: Bowie, March 7.

Early dates of fall arrival are: New Mexico: Mescalero Indian Agency, September 12. Kansas: northeastern Kansas, October 29 (median of 4 years, November 7). Oklahoma: Comanche County, November 21. Texas: Amarillo, October 18; Austin, November 15.

Late dates of fall departure are: Wyoming: Laramie, October 27 (average of 6 years, October 12).

Egg dates: Montana: 10 records, May 9 to July 28; 5 records, May 9 to May 26.

North Dakota: 17 records, May 17 to July 22; 9 records, M~y 27 to June 10.

Saskatchewan: 7 records, May 28 to June 14.

Wyoming: 5 records, May 17 to June 29.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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