by Darcy Thomas
My first introduction to the American Pipit Anthus rubescens was in the Skagit valley in Washington state where I saw a small flock foraging for insects in the winter. They were a rather nondescript brown bird that I did not notice at first glance as they blended in so well to the agricultural field I was passing. They reminded me of shorebirds because of their foraging behavior although they were more like sparrows in appearance. I didn’t think too much about them other than learning to identify them and observing their habitat. Later that year my daughter and I took a hike to Sunrise Point in Mount Rainier National Park. We hiked to a beautiful subalpine meadow and, lo and behold, there we saw a small brown bird that I knew was a pipit but, what was it doing up here? It was quick stepping in the short grasses and plants while foraging for insects. I had to learn more about this amazing bird that could be found in such diverse habitats.
It turns out that the pipit I saw on Mount Rainier may not have even been eating live insects. As lower valleys warm up, air rises carrying insects along for the ride. They land on the snowpack, die and freeze in place. Pipits use this natural event as a feeding strategy to simply walk around while dining on the frozen treats.
American Pipits are one of the few American songbirds that nest in both the Arctic Tundra and subalpine meadows. Males arrive first, singing pi-pit, pi-pit, pi-pit as they fly. When females arrive, the breeding displays begin with males flying up to 100 feet in the air, then parachuting to earth in a spiral, tail feathers fanned out and cocked upward, wings spread out, singing all the while. This display attracts potential mates while marking their territory. Male pipits are highly territorial and often clash with other males, chasing each other as they display in flight. Territory size is dependent on food availability and may be as little as 1/3 acre to as large as 5 acres. Females build a nest cup on the ground with dried grasses and sedges brought to her by her mate. She places her nest on open ground protected somewhat by vegetation, a rise in the ground or a rock, and lines it with fine grass and feathers. She will lay 3-7 eggs and begin incubating them. Foraging alone, her mate will bring food to her, passing it to her on the wing while fluttering in the air away from the nest.
Insects and their larvae are the primary staple of the American Pipit diet. They supplement this diet with spiders and ticks as well as seeds and other plant material, especially in the fall and winter. In marine habitats they add marine worms and small crustaceans to their diet. They have no trouble foraging on unstable snow or mudflats because of a wonderful adaptation to their feet which have a long hind toe called a hallux, capped with a toenail. American Pipits are pretty unremarkable in appearance being overall brownish above and pale below with most subspecies showing streaks along the breasts and sides. Their bills are short and thin, less heavy than a sparrow. While pipits are found in the open and are not all that shy, they can be rather difficult to see as they blend into the background. You are likely to hear them before you see them as they call during flight.
American Pipits are highly migratory. In the fall, beginning in mid-September through October, they leave their Arctic or subalpine breeding grounds, traveling during the day in loose flocks on their way to the southern United States south to the tip of Central America. They return in the spring with peak migration occurring from late March to early May. Most people see pipits during migration or throughout the winter months where they can be found foraging in flocks in agricultural fields and other open areas. They are often spotted on airfields and grassy sports fields, beaches and mudflats. They also like to forage along the sandy or muddy margins of rivers, lakes and reservoirs. If at first, you think you have spotted a shorebird, look again. You may be looking at an American Pipit. They have a similar foraging habit of walking briskly while jutting their heads forward and making lots of quick turns. American Pipits are often seen with Horned Larks who like similar habitat.
While American Pipits may be declining in numbers, they continue to be widespread and common and are of low conservation concern. These are pretty resilient birds. High in the Beartooth mountains of Wyoming a snowstorm buried 17 pipit nests for 24 hours. All of the nestlings that were 11 days old or older survived and a few of the younger nestlings survived as well. So, go out and enjoy the fall weather. Keep an eye out for the American Pipit and listen for its’ call – Pi-pit, pi-pit, pi-pit!