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Smith’s Longspur

A small passerine bird species that breeds in the northern regions of North America, specifically in the Arctic tundra of Alaska and northern Canada. During the winter months, they migrate to the Great Plains of North America.

The Smith’s Longspur is interesting in part because of its unusual reproductive habits in which females mate with multiple males and males mate with multiple females. Breeding territories are not established, but mate guarding takes place. Fast flights take place in which one male Smith’s Longspur chases another.

In the limited studies that have been done, Smith’s Longspurs appear to frequently return to breeding areas in subsequent years. They are thought to begin breeding at age one, and have been known to live at least five years in the wild.

Description of the Smith’s Longspur


The Smith’s Longspur has a black tail with white outer tail feathers, buffy underparts, black streaking on buffy upperparts, and a dark ear patch with a paler center. Black and white face pattern.


Smiths Longspur

Photograph © Ken Williams

Streaked buffy and brownish head pattern.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter males are similar to breeding females.


Juveniles resemble winter adults.


Prairies and tundra.


Seeds and insects.


Forages by walking or running.

Smith’s Longspur


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

Fun Facts

Male Smith’s Longspurs sing from perches but are not territorial during the breeding season.

Smith’s Longspurs migrate and winter in small flocks.


The song is a series of warbles, and a frequent flight call is a rattle.

Similar Species

  • Other longspurs have thicker bills and less buffy plumage.


The nest is a cup of plant material lined with hair and feathers placed on the ground.

Number: 4.
Color: Tan with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:  
– Young hatch at 11-13 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 7-9 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.

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


Contributed by EMERSON KEMSIES


This obscure species well deserves Ira N. Gabrielson and Frederick C. Lincoln’s (1959) characterization of it as “one of the least known of North American birds.” In many ways a bird of mystery, it is nowhere plentiful, and its elusiveness makes it hard to find in the field, even where it is known to be present. Hence the dearth of information in the literature about its habits is not surprising. This account combines the available material on all tbree subspecies, whose respective ranges are detailed in the distribution section.

William Swainson described the species in 1831 as Embetiza pid~, meaning “painted buntling,” from a specimen Sir John Richardson’s exploring party collected in Saskatchewan. Some 13 years later J. J. Audubon gave it its common name in honor of his friend Gideon B. Smith of Baltimore, when he described as new, specimens he obtained in southwestern illinois.

South of their northern breeding grounds, Smith’s longspurs are encountered only in open, grassy fields and pastures. Of recent years airports have offered them suitable wintering habitat where they are frequently reported. Nowhere, however, are they easy to observe. W. Rowan of Edmonton, Alberta, commented on their evasiveness thusly in a letter to Mr. Bent: “Like the Lapland longspur the flock indulged in elaborate aerial evolutions, though not nearly so spectacular, which they continued over their favorite field for a great while until they either settled down or disappeared altogether. They always settled with great abruptness and without any warning that we could note. Once in the stubble, although it happened to be very thin after last year’s drought, they were impossible to see, even when right amongst them.”

Spring: P. A. Taverner (1926) calls the species “Only a migrant in cultivated Canada, passing th[r]ough quickly ** in spring * Not nearly so common nor so generally distributed as the Lapland Longspur, but appearing in flocks of considerable size when it does occur.” Edward A. Preble (1908) describes their migrating past Fort Simpson, Mackenzie, in May. “When disturbed, the birds flew in a loose flock, not nearly so fast as the Lapland longspurs, and usually only a short distance. When feeding they were very difficult to detect. Their characteristic note was heard only a few times.”

According to Laurence Irving (1960) they reach their breeding grounds in northern Alaska two to three weeks later than the Lapland longspurs. He estimated them to he “~ * * about a twentieth as numerous as Alaskan [Lapland] longspurs which would rank them as about the second species in abundance over the open wet grassy part of tbe tundra at the level of the floor of Anaktnvuk Valley.

“They did not frequent the dry places, but were often seen in wet grassy places.” He also notes that the testes of the males “showed all to be at breeding size at the time of arrival. In this they were unlike the Alaska longspurs which bad been reported two weeks before the time all males were at breeding size.”

Nesting: Irving (1960) continues:

In four females examined between May 27 and June 1, eggs were recorded at 2 mm. in length (that is, to have undergone a little growth), but on June 5, a bird contained a fully formed egg.

The nests collected * * * in 1949 were located on hummocks in the grassy tundra, slightly raised above the wet or damp surroundings and not concealed. They were rather bulky and were constructed of grass lined with fine round grass, some caribou hair, and a few ptarmigan feathers. The sets of eggs were observed f or two or three days before being taken and were complete in number by about June 15. This places the nesting date about 10 days later than that of Alaskan longspurs.

S. F. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874) write of what were probably the first nests of this species discovered:

These birds were observed in large numbers at Fort Anderson, and on the Lower Anderson River, by Mr. l\tacFarlane, and a large number of their nests obtained. These were all on the ground, and usually in open spaces, but also in the vicinity of trees. The usual number of eggs found in a nest appears to have been four. The nests, for the most part, were constructed of fine dry grasses, carefully arranged, and lined with down, feathers, or finer materials similar to those of the outer portions. In a few there were no feathers; in others, feathers in different proportions; and in a few the down and feathers composed the chief portion of the nest, with only a f cxv leaves as a base to the nest. They were sometimes sunk in excavations made by the birds, or placed in a tussock of grass, and, in one instance, placed in the midst of a bed of Labrador tea.

* * * * * * *

When their nests are approached, the female quietly slips off, while the male bird may be seen hopping or flying from tree to tree in the neighborhood of the nest, and will at times do all he can to induce intruders to withdraw from the neighborhood.

On his experiences with the nominate race in the Hudson Bay region in 1931, Olin S. Pettingill, Jr., has sent me the following notes from his field journal:

June 29. I aceidently flushed a female from her nest this afternoon at Mosquito Point. She flushed almost at my feet and alighted 5 feet away. I recognized her woodeny rattle at once. The nest contained four eggs.

July 1. I found a nest with three eggs. Discovered it by watching the female only a few minutes. She returned to it by flying first to a tree for a brief stay, then to the ground.

July 4. I found a nest with four eggs near the Gravel Pit.

July 9. Today I photographed the Gravel Pit nest and female. The nest contained three young with one egg lying alongside. The nest was placed in the open with a clump of grass at the north side. It was constructed of grasses, lined with five white Willow Ptarmigan feathers, and sunk in dry moss not two feet from the edge of a small pond. When I first approached the nest I was greeted with a sudden rush and flight from beneath my feet. Alighting just four feet away, the female spread her tail downward so that it touched the ground, dropped her wings slightly and lowered her head as well. She then crept about slowly, her rump feathers lifted slightly, and uttered her rattling cries.

For the first hour the female did not come to the nest, but having gained courage, she returned repeatedly. She always approached on foot, stopping at intervals. Once she remained ‘glued” near the nest for about four minutes, making no motion except flickering her eyelids. The male came near the nest with food in his beak, but after cycing the blind a short while, swallowed the food and departed. The female fed the young at least five times during my two hours in the blind. She found the food always in the near vicinity of the nest, and was seldom out of my view.

Eggs: Most subsequent descriptions of the eggs of this species seem to have been copied from Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874), who state they “have a light clay-colored ground, are marked with obscure blotches of lavender and darker lines, dots, and blotches of dark purplish-brown.” Coues (1903) considers them “less heavily colored than those of Iapponicu,s usually are, and thus closely resembling those of ornatus.” The usual clutch size is four or five, and rarely six eggs. XV. G. F. Harris reports by letter: “The measurements of 50 eggs average 21.0 by 15.0 mm.; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 23.9 by 15.5, 22.4 by 16.3, 18.8 by 14.7, and 20.9 by 13.7 mm.”

Young: J. R. Jehl, Jr., and D. J. T. Russell (1966) say of the incubation period: “Previously unknown, the periods at three nests were ll~4, 1134, and 12 days.” Irving (1960) notes that young birds in Alaska “had reached adult weight on July 27.”

In August, 1958, I had the opportunity to visit Churchill, Manitoba, where Mrs. H. L. Smith kindly showed me the areas Smith’s longspur inhabits. At one place a male flew up from the ground, steadily giving the alarm rattle. A few moments later two nearly full-grown young and a female flew up from the ground near the base of a spruce. The male meanwhile perched near the top of a black spruce 8 feet high, which surprised me considerably, for I had seen the species previously only on the ground or flying overhead.

Food: Martin, Zim, and Nelson (1951) report that 21 stomachs collected in Illinois in winter contained mainly seeds of dropseedgrass (Sporobolus), bristlegrass (Silaria) and panicgrass (Panicum), with lesser amounts of wheat, timothy, clover, crabgrass, common ragweed, bulrush, millet, and sedge. Of animal food they say “Beetles (particularly ground beetles), caterpillars, and spiders are prominent among the invertebrates eaten by this species.”

Two birds Ben Coffey collected, one in Tennessee, the other in Mississippi, had eaten mainly seeds of three-awn grass (Aristida). Horace H. Jeeter found the birds inhabiting patches of this same grass on a Shreveport, La., airport. W. D. Klimstra of Southern Illinois University reports on the stomachs of two November birds Jay Sheppard collected in Ohio: “We have examined the crops of the two Smith’s Longspurs. En the case of both there were two species of plants represented: Sporobolus vaginiftora and Digitaria ‘isclaemum. In both cases Sporobolus represents over 99 per cent of the seeds.” It is of interest to note that although Aristad.a was growing in the field where these birds were collected, no seeds of it were found in them.

Voice: Most observers encountering this species note as does Preble (1908) in Athabasca: “My attention was first attracted to them by their characteristic notes, several sharp ‘chirps’ uttered in quick succession.”

R. T. Peterson (1960) says of its voice: “Rattling or clicking notes in flight (suggests winding of cheap watch). Song, sweet and warblerlike; ends like a Chestnut-sided Warbler’s (we’ chew).

The rattling notes characteristically given as the birds take wing are also heard on the ground. These notes are similar to those of the Lapland longspur, but some observers believe they can detect a difference in quality between the two. To me the notes of Smith’s seem more staccato, louder, and more intense than those of the Lapland, though the differences may not be apparent on first meeting with the birds. A flock of birds calling overhead may induce others on the ground to join them in flight, or vice-versa.

Behavior: Alexander Wetmore wrote me in a letter:

In late February and early March, 1905, I found between 20 and 30 Smith’s longspurs scattered through large pastures near Independence in southeastern Kansas. They ranged in wet ground, in slight depressions, and around small ponds where grassy vegetation had been grazed closely by cattle. In this rather open cover the longspurs remained so concealed that I came upon the first ones seen by chance, so that it is possible that they had been present there throughout the winter. I located them first by their low calls, sufficiently different from those of the Lapland longspur, present in numbers, to attract attention. Often they allowed approach, without moving, to within a dozen steps; occasionally I found that one had remained hidden while I passed within a dozen feet.

They flushed suddenly, with low calls that were repeated at times by hidden birds which remained in the grass, and flew with a swift, erratic flight that for a few yards reminded me of the zigzag course of a common snipe as it flushed. Often the longapurs dropped immediately to the ground. If they remained in the air, the flight became undulating and they circled for several minutes. Usually then calls from companions hidden in the cover brought them again to the ground. They were especially averse to taking flight if the wind was high. They seemed to remain apart from the Savannah and LeConte sparrows, other longspurs, and horned larks that were also present in small numbers in these fields.

In a letter to Mr. Bent, W. Rowan remarks that “they have a peculiar habit of running suddenly for a short distance before again becoming immobile. The run is always accompanied by a musical little twitter, a useful prelude that helped us materially to pick out the bird the moment it moved. The birds always scattered widely on settling. We collected specimens entirely at random, picking off the birds as they revealed themselves, so that theoretically we should have had equal numbers of both sexes, yet we got about three males to one female. This seems to indicate that males are in excess. The same thing applies to both flocks noted.”

At the Oxford, Ohio, airport we have found the birds often quite unwary, and have approached them to within 15 or 20 feet. When first flushed they usually fly close to the ground for a distance of only S or 10 yards before settling again, but after repeated flushing they generally spiral high into the air, sometimes almost out of sight, and may remain aloft for several minutes. In Ohio and in northwestern Indiana fields, Smith’s longspurs seldom associate with the Lapland longspurs, unless they are forced into close proximity by such circumstances as a general disturbance of a migratory concentration, or by crowding during the peak of the Lapland’s massive migration.

Field marks: Smith’s longspur has the white outer tail feathers of the other longspurs, but in all plumages is generally a much buffier bird, with a slightly slenderer, more pointed bill, and yellowish legs. The male in spring is unmistakable with his striking triangular black and white head marking; adult males often retain their distinctive white-tipped black lesser wing coverts in winter. Females and irnmatures closely resemble their Lapland counterparts, but may be distinguished by their greater huffiness, and particularly by their huffy abdomens, which are concolor with the breast, and not almost white as in the Lapland.

Fall and winter: As Worth Randle and I have pointed out (Kemsies and Randle, 1964), regrettably little is known of the migratory movements and winter distribution of Smith’s longspur. The recent efforts of Coffey (1954), Jeeter (1953), Imhof (1962), and Sheppard (1959) have added greatly to our knowledge of seasonal movements and shown the wintering grounds to be considerably more extensive than was previously thought (see distribution section). But whether individual birds follow the same migratory pat.hs in spring and fall, or whether they return to the same wintering grounds in subsequent years is unknown. So far the species has proved even more difficult to band than it generally is to observe, and too few have been banded to contribute materially to our information.

Previous to 1958 the only Smith’s longspurs ever banded were five nestlings at Churchill, Manitoba, three in 1933 and two in 1941. In April 1958, Ronald Austing and Edward Johnstone tried to catch some with mist nets at the Oxford, Ohio, airport. They were plagued by the constant strong seasonal winds, but finally, on the 14th, they managed to herd the birds and suddenly flush three of them into the nets, two males and a female. The following year they put out cracked corn as bait, which the birds were quick to find and come to. Between March 28 and April 23 they banded 39 birds and took 5 repeats of individuals from 6 to 19 days after banding.

They tried again in the spring of 1960, but the birds showed no interest in the cracked corn put out, nor in other baits offered them: seeds of clover, orchard grass, and lespedeza. Again unfavorable winds interfered with their efforts, but finally they managed to net six new birds at a nearby puddle where 70 to 80 birds came regularly to drink at noon. Thus over a 3-year period only 48 individuals were banded which to date have produced no returns or recoveries.

Range: Northern Alaska, northern Yukon, northwestern Mackenzie, and southeastern Keewatin, southeastward to central Texas, northwestern Louisiana and Mississippi, and southwestern Tennessee.

Breeding range: The Smith’s longspur breeds from northeastcentral Alaska (nests recorded from Anaktuvuk Pass), northern Yukon (Herschel Island), northwestern and central northern Mackenzie (Caribou Hills west of Mackenzie Delta, mouth of Kogaryuak River on Coronation Gulf), and southeastern Keewatin, southeast to south-central Mackenzie, northeastern Manitoba (Churchill), and the Hudson Bay coast of northern Ontario (Fort Severn, Cape Henrietta Maria, and Little Cape).

Winter range: Winters from Kansas, central Iowa (Linn and Poweshiek counties), and Illinois, south to central Texas (Giddings), northwestern Louisiana (Shreveport), central Arkansas (Lonoke), northwestern Mississippi (Walls), and southwestern Tennessee (Memphis).

Casual records: Casual west to central and southeastern British Columbia (Kispiox Valley, Boundary Pass), north to central northern Alaska (Umiat on the Colville River), east to southern Ontario (Elmvale) and South Carolina (Chester), and south to central Alabama (Birmingham, Montgomery) and northeastern New Mexico (Clayton).

Migration: Early dates of ~pring arrival are: Illinois: Urbana, March 29; Chicago, March 30. Indiana: Jasper County, April 24. Ohio: Oxford, March 19 (median arrival for central Ohio, April 1). Wisconsin: Sauk Prairie, April 27. Minnesota: Jackson County, April 18. North Dakota: Cass County, April 28. Manitoba: Treesbank, April 30 (average of 5 years, May 6); Whitewater Lake, May 4; Churchill, May 6. Saskatchewan: Indian Head, May 14. Mackenzie: Hay River, Great Slave Lake, May 12. Alberta: Beaverhill Lake, May 15. British Columbia: Tupper Creek, May 27. Alaska: Tolugak Lake, May 27.

Late dates of spring departure are: Arkansas: Fayetteville, February 28, Illinois: Chicago, May 15; Urbana, May 12. Ohio: central Ohio, median, May 1. Minnesota: Marshall County, May 6. Oklahoma: Cleveland County, April 1. North Dakota: Red River Valley, May 12. Arizona: White Mountains, April 24.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Alberta: Beaverhill Lake, August 28. Manitoba: Oak Lake, September 15. Saskatchewan: Lake Athabaska, August 17; Indian Head, September 11. North Dakota: Red River Valley, October 5. Oklahoma: Tulsa, December 1. Texas: Gainesville, November 19; Tyler, December 6. Minnesota: Kittson County, September 15. Alabama: Birmingham, December 5.

Late dates of fall departure are: British Columbia: Kispiox Valley, August 25. North Dakota: Cass County, October 18. Minnesota: Kittson County, October 13. Ohio: Oxford, November 27.

Egg dates: Mackenzie: 28 records, June 9 to July 2; 18 records, June 20 to June 26.

Manitoba: 5 records, June 2 to July 3.

Regarding the Frontispiece

The A.O.U. Check-List Committee has not as yet assessed the validity of the three races of Smith’s longspur pictured in the frontispiece to this volume. Just before going to press we recelved a copy of a manuscript by Joseph R. JehI, Jr., entitled “Geographic and Seasonal Variation in Smith’s Longspur,” which he has submitted for publication in the Transactions of the San Diego Society of Natural History. Jehl’s study presents strong evidence that no geographical variation exists in this species. The color differences on which Kemsies’ (1961) proposed races are based are apparently the result of seasonal feather wear and fading of the breeding plumage. The brightly colored birds that Kemsies named “roweorum” are in relatively fresh, unworn breeding plumage and were collected in May and early June. The birds with the palest underparts and darkest backs (C. p. “mersi”) are in worn faded plumage and were collected in July and early August just before the postnuptial molt. The describer was apparently misled by inadequate material and biased sampling: O.L.A., Jr.

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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