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American Pipit

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American Pipit

American Pipit

Jeff Whitlock

The American pipit may have unassuming plumage and relatively drab colors, but this bird's interesting behavior provides great clues to its identity, even when it might accidentally be confused with sparrows or other ground-dwelling species.

Common Name:

American Pipit, Water Pipit, Buff-Bellied Pipit

Scientific Name:

Anthus rubescens

Scientific Family:

Motacillidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Slim and straight with a pointed tip, paler base and darker tip
  • Size: 6-7 inches long with 10-11-inch wingspan, slim body, long tail, long legs
  • Colors: Brown, buff, white, gray, pink, yellow
  • Markings: Genders are similar with grayish-brown upperparts that may show faint streaks on the back. The underparts are white or buff and show spotty streaks on the breast and flanks, though the degree of streaking varies greatly between subspecies and geographic populations. The abdomen is plain white or buff. During the breeding season, a pink or yellow wash may show on the chest. The face is marked with plain cheeks and crown, an indistinct, blurry buff eyebrow and a thin pale eye ring. The chin and throat are plain white, bordered by a dark malar streak or patch. The outermost tail feathers are white, and the wings show pale edging that may appear to be rough wing bars. The legs and feet are dark.

    Juveniles are similar to adults but have more buff edging in their plumage, giving them a more strongly mottled appearance.

Foods:

Insects, seeds, mollusks, crustaceans (See: Insectivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

These birds prefer open ground such as tundra, beaches, tilled agricultural fields or any fields with short grasses and barren areas. Their summer breeding range extends from Alaska and British Columbia through the highest parts of northern Canada, with other isolated breeding populations in appropriate habitat in the eastern Rocky Mountain regions of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, northern Arizona and western Nevada. In winter, the American pipit migrates to the Pacific Coast from southern British Colombia to Baja and throughout the southern United States, Mexico and the Bahamas. On the Atlantic Coast, the winter range extends as far north as New Jersey. These birds are also found in Asia, in similar habitats.

Vagrant sightings are rarely reported in Europe, most often during fall migration.

Vocalizations:

These birds are aptly named for their high-pitched "pip-pip" or "pip-it" call notes. The tempo can vary, but faster calls are most typical. A slower, evenly spaced "peep-peep-peep" call with more drawn out notes is used to signal alarm, and is often heard when a foraging flock is spooked and moves to a new area.

Behavior:

American pipits are easily distinguished by their unique behavior. While foraging, they run or walk rather than hop, and will glean insects off muddy or watery surfaces as well as among rocks or short grass. They bob lightly even while standing still, and slowly pump their tails.

These birds are solitary or found in pairs during the breeding season, but are far more gregarious in winter and will gather in flocks that can number hundreds of birds. Winter flocks may also be mixed with horned larks, longspurs and similar species. In the air, these birds have a smooth undulating flight path.

Reproduction:

These are monogamous birds, and the male courts a female with a type of floating dive flight while he sings. After mating, the female builds a sparse scrape or shallow cup nest that may be bare or could be lined with grasses or fur. The eggs are grayish-white with dense brown splotches, and 3-7 eggs are laid per brood. Only one brood of chicks is raised by a mated pair each year.

The female parent incubates the eggs for 13-15 days. After the altricial chicks have hatched, she continues to shelter and protect them, but both parents feed the young birds for an additional 13-15 days.

Attracting American Pipits:

These birds are not common in backyards, but leaving an open area available for foraging or sprinkling seed on the ground can help attract them in the proper range. They may visit low, open platform feeders in rural areas, especially in winter if other food sources are scarce.

Conservation:

While American pipits are not yet considered endangered or threatened, the overall population numbers may be declining and further study is needed to see if changes are drastic enough to warrant action. As neotropical migrants, these birds suffer from habitat loss in their winter range, and protecting open, rocky fields and shorelines is essential to ensure these pipits have plenty of room to thrive.

Similar Birds:

  • Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii)
  • Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)
  • Pechora Pipit (Anthus gustavi)
  • Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Photo – American Pipit © Jeff Whitlock

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