Bird Watcher's General Store

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Lapland Longspurs Are Abundant

Dear Bird Folks,

What do you know about a bird called the Lapland Longspur? I saw a beautiful picture of one in a magazine, while I was waiting in the dentist’s office. Unfortunately I was called in before I had a chance to read the story that went along with it. I am hoping you might be able to tell me something about it so I won’t have to go back to the dentist.

– Kristina, Hampton, NH


No offense Kris,

I’m not trying to single you out or anything, but lately the questions we receive seem to be getting stranger and stranger. It’s not that a question about a longspur is that unusual, but I don’t often get inquiries that originate from the waiting room of a dentist’s office. Most people who are waiting for the dentist don’t notice bird stories because they are too focused on the forthcoming pain. I’m not referring to any physical discomfort brought about by the dental procedure. That’s nothing. What I’m talking about is the pain that comes on the way out the door, when you have to pay the bill. Even a blast of Novocain won’t help with that agony.

Before we begin, I have a question. How many people out there have ever seen a Lapland Longspur? Go ahead, raise your hands. Leave them up so I can count. Hmmm, that’s not very many. Did you know that longspurs are one of North America’s most abundant birds? That’s true. Yet many haven’t seen them. It seems some of us are spending too little time outdoors and way too much time inside, probably waiting for a dentist.

The name “Lapland” makes it sound like the bird should live way up in Scandinavia. Well, it does live in Scandinavia, and Siberia too, where it is called the “Lapland Bunting.” Early North American naturalists used the name “longspur” in reference to the extremely long hind toe that the bird has. I’d bet if they were to name the bird today the term “longspur” would be challenged. It may be politically incorrect to point out the bird’s odd foot structure. Birds have feelings too you know.

With its chestnut nape and solid black face, the breeding plumaged male Lapland Longspur is a striking bird. Unfortunately, we don’t often get to see the bird in breeding plumage because it breeds way, way, way up north. I’m talking way up, past Hudson’s Bay, above the Arctic Circle, in some new weird part of Canada called “Nunavut.” What? Nunavut? Did you ever hear of that? Neither have I. Even my computer’s spell checker doesn’t know about it. Evidently it’s a new territory in Canada that they forgot to tell me or my computer about.

Up in the vast, isolated area of Nunavut, longspurs breed by the millions. This area is so remote that often longspurs are the only songbirds to be found, and that’s fine with them. The handsome sparrow-like males arrive first, stake out a territory and wait for the ladies to arrive. Because the Arctic nesting season is so short the longspurs don’t have a drawn out courtship. The male performs a quick flight-song display, the female says “yeah, whatever” and the mating begins. Too bad all mating wasn’t that easy.

As soon as the nesting season is over the longspurs pack up and head south, to a more manageable latitude, which in this case is the good old USA. Each fall millions of longspurs pour out of Canada, somehow avoid INS agents, and settle in for the winter. This raises the question, “If there are so many longspurs, why did I suggest few of us have seen them?” Well, longspurs like wide open spaces. The vast majority winter in the middle of the country. Here, along the east coast, we see comparatively few. The other thing is that longspurs aren’t feeder birds. You aren’t likely to find them in your backyard, unless your backyard is a 100 acre farm or the Great Plains. In addition, come winter time, the longspurs lose their distinctive breeding plumage and look more sparrow-ish. And who has the patience for figuring out sparrow-ish birds?

Longspurs are amazingly efficient birds. They can find food in areas where other birds would starve. Along the coast they are usually seen foraging in the dunes, sometimes in the company of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. In the midwest longspurs may be seen in huge flocks, picking up waste grains in farmers’ fields. They are also attracted to fields that have been recently covered in manure. But who isn’t attracted to that?

Now let’s review what we’ve learned today. Lapland Longspurs are abundant, sparrow-like birds, that breed way up in a part of Canada that was just recently invented. Also, unlike you, Kris, longspurs never need to go to the dentist, which is a good thing for the dentist. It wouldn’t be fun looking into the beak of a bird that just finished feeding in a field of manure.