Bird of the Year
Introduction by Nate Swick, ABA Blog editor
The lineup of previous ABA Birds of the Year is a bit of a motley crew, but they have one important thing in common. For each of them, the likelihood of ABA members to come across them in their own part of the world is pretty high. This was intentional, of course. It was the intention of the Bird of the Year project to feature flashy, charismatic, birds that we all come into contact with with some regularity. In that sense, this year’s choice is a bit of a departure.
Chestnut-collared Longspur is a bird of open country. It breeds in a part of the continent where few birders live and only a few more regularly visit. But on territory it’s nothing short of spectacular, performing elaborate aerial displays in which it launches itself 40 feet into the air and, descending slowly with tail spread, sings its delightful slurry warble the whole way. It’s more likely to cross paths with birders on its wintering grounds in the southern Great Plains and southwest, but by then the rich black belly and nappy red-brown nape of the males is replaced by subdued streaks and furtive demeanor. It’s a “birder’s bird”. It’s a species that requires, and rewards, effort.
Not just effort by birders to see it, but effort by researchers to even place it in a proper phylogenetic context. Longspurs have seen their taxonomic status change a fair bit in recent years. For decades that were assumed, by virtue of their streaks and stubby bills, to be closely related to sparrows in the Emberizidae family. But like many mysteries of taxonomy, more recent genetic work has placed them in a clade closer to warblers, cardinals, and tanagers, but still unique. No longer with sparrows, the 4 longspurs make up the family Calcariidae along with Snow and McKay’s Buntings.
But more than the characteristics of the Chestnut-collared Longspur itself, this is a bird that is very evocative of a specific time and place – namely, the short-grass prairies in the great middle of the continent. It’s an ecosystem that is lauded for its importance as an incubator for shorebirds and waterfowl but is also under threat from a great many sources. Industrial agriculture has pared down its core range over the decades, but a relatively new industry in fossil fuel extraction threatens to cut down even more. Recent surveys have shown significant declines in nesting populations of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, as much as 87% since the 1960s. Other, more iconic, Great Plains species get more publicity, and not without justification themselves, but smaller plains birds run the risk of winking into obscurity, as they have in many parts of their formerly vast ranges.
And that’s part of the reason we wanted to chose this bird this year. So that even if you haven’t made the trip to North Dakota or eastern Montana or southern Saskatchewan to hear the slurry warbling song of a Chestnut-collared Longspur as it descends from the heavens, you’ll be able to well into the future.
Fun Facts About Chestnut-collared Longspur
Historically, Chestnut-collared Longspur bred in areas grazed by bison or recently disturbed by fire. In modern times, it can be found in the short grass of cattle pastures and mowed airstrips, in addition to natural short-grass prairie.
Chestnut-collared Longspur is known to regularly produce double-broods in a season. While they’re socially monogamous, extra-pair copulations are known to occur. This is particularly true in the second-brood, and most extra-pair young are found in second-brood nests.
While Chestnut-collared Longspur is primarily a bird of the short-grass prairie in the middle of the continent, it has a history of vagrancy across the ABA Area. There are records of the species as far east as Nova Scotia and Florida and as far west as British Columbia and Alaska.
The genus of the Chestnut-collared Longspur as well as Smith’s and Lapland Longspurs, is Calcarius, which comes from the Latin calcar meaning spur. This refers to the elongated claw on the hind toe in all three species.
The species name, ornata, should be familiar to birders as the root of “ornate”, pertaining to the elaborate breeding plumage of the male.
- Breeding male is unmistakable, with black chest and belly, creamy face and throat, and rich chestnut nape. Non-breeding birds are subdued, gray and streaky, with some of the bold breeding pattern retained on the head and nape. All plumages show a distinctive pattern in the tail, which is mostly white with a bold black triangle in the center. Wings are short compared to other longspurs.
Females and young males are similar to each other. Pale and streaky overall, with a small gray bill. Dark rear auriculars (ears) are distinctive.
Song is a descending slurry warble, similar in cadence to Western Meadowlark but higher-pitched. Flight call is a long rattling kiddle.
Other interesting links:
Chestnut-collared Longspur Sound Recordings – Xeno-Canto
Chestnut-collared Longspur Audio & Video Recordings – Macaulay Library
Chestnut-collared Longspur profile at AllAboutBirds.com
Chestnut-collared Longspur profile at The Birds of North America