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Smith's Longspur

November 15, 2023

Title: Discovering the Smith's Longspur: Nature’s Hidden Gem

Welcome to a deep dive into the remarkable world of the Smith's Longspur, a bird species that remains largely elusive to the common birdwatcher yet offers a rich tapestry of interesting traits and behaviors. With a limited range and specific habitat requirements, this species is not as well-known as some, but its unique characteristics make it a fascinating subject. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the size and shape of the Smith's Longspur, its striking color pattern, unique behaviors, preferred habitat, and some riveting facts about this intriguing bird. We'll also delve into the vital ecosystem services it provides and the importance of its conservation.


Size and Shape

The Smith's Longspur, scientific name Calcarius pictus, is a small, migratory passerine bird of the family Calcariidae. A fully grown Smith's Longspur is typically about 6 to 6.5 inches in length, comparable to a Sparrow, with a wingspan ranging from 11 to 12 inches. This species is often recognized by its distinctive shape which is characterized by a plump body and short tail.

When it comes to the shape of the bird, one distinctive feature is the long claw on its hind toe, the feature from which it gets its name. This long hind toe is a trait shared by all longspurs. It's worth noting that the bird's hind claw is more extended than the ones found on its peers, making it particularly noticeable. Despite its relatively small size, the bird's well-proportioned body and robust claws suggest strength and agility, traits advantageous for its migratory and ground-dwelling lifestyle.

As a ground dweller, the Smith's Longspur has sturdy legs that equip it well for life on the ground. Interestingly, its bill is small and conical, much like those of seed-eating birds, revealing a lot about its dietary habits. On observing the bird closely, one can notice that its wings are relatively long and pointed. This wing shape, combined with a short tail, contributes to the bird's agile flight.

The Smith's Longspur possesses a rounded head, which is relatively large in comparison to its body. This characteristic gives it a charming, almost endearing appearance. Overall, the bird's size and shape serve as physical adaptations to its lifestyle, enhancing its survival in its unique habitat.


Color Pattern

The Smith's Longspur has a distinctive color pattern that sets it apart from other bird species. Males and females have different colorations, a trait known as sexual dimorphism. During the breeding season, the male Smith's Longspur boasts a stunning pattern. It has a chestnut-colored back, a black face, and white underparts, making it easily recognizable.

Outside of the breeding season, the male's appearance becomes more muted. Its back turns more buff and brown, and the black on its face fades. However, it retains a noticeable pattern that can be used to distinguish it from other species. Its wings retain dark colors, creating a contrast against its lighter body.

The female Smith's Longspur, on the other hand, is more modest in her coloration throughout the year. She has a brownish-grey body with dark streaks, with a paler underside. Her face is grey with brown highlights around the eye, and she does not possess the black face of the male. However, she still shares the feature of a more colorful back as compared to the belly, a trait shared with the male.

Juvenile Smith's Longspurs, like females, have a subdued color pattern. They resemble females closely, which can make it challenging to distinguish between adult females and juveniles. As they mature, young males gradually develop the distinctive color pattern of adult males.

Irrespective of the season or age, the Smith's Longspur's unique color pattern plays a vital role in its behavior, particularly concerning courtship and camouflage. It's an integral aspect of their identity, affecting their survival and reproduction strategies.



The Smith's Longspur exhibits a fascinating range of behaviors that reflect its adaptation to its lifestyle and habitat. It is primarily a ground bird, spending much of its time on the ground foraging for food. It walks or runs rather than hops, which is characteristic of its ground-dwelling nature.

When it comes to feeding, the Smith's Longspur is omnivorous. It primarily feeds on seeds during the non-breeding season but incorporates a higher proportion of insects into its diet during the breeding season. This variation in diet reveals its adaptability and opportunistic feeding habits.

During the breeding season, male Smith's Longspurs perform an elaborate courtship display to attract females. This display involves a high, fluttering flight accompanied by a unique song, followed by a spiraling descent back to the ground. This spectacle is both a visual and auditory treat, reflecting the bird's rich behavioral repertoire.

Interestingly, Smith's Longspur is one of the few bird species that practice polygyny, where one male mates with multiple females. After mating, females take on the responsibility of constructing the nest, incubating the eggs, and caring for the hatchlings, while the male may move on to court other females.

Despite being a relatively small bird, the Smith's Longspur is a long-distance migrant. It breeds in the high Arctic tundra of North America and travels to the southern United States' grasslands for wintering, demonstrating incredible endurance and navigational capabilities.



The Smith's Longspur inhabits two vastly different habitats depending on the season. During the breeding season, it resides in the open Arctic tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. This habitat is characterized by low vegetation and an abundance of wetlands. Here, the bird nests on the ground, cleverly concealing its nest among the vegetation.

When winter arrives, and the Arctic freezes, the Smith's Longspur migrates to a completely different habitat. It winters in the southern United States, primarily in Arkansas and Texas, where it inhabits agricultural fields and grasslands. These wintering grounds provide the bird with ample food sources, particularly seeds, which make up a substantial portion of its diet during this season.

Interestingly, during migration, Smith's Longspurs often gather in large flocks. They utilize a range of habitats during this journey, including farmland and even airports. The bird's ability to thrive in these diverse environments reveals its adaptability and resilience.

One of the striking aspects of the Smith's Longspur's habitat preference is its specificity. This bird has specific habitat requirements, particularly during the breeding season. This requirement, combined with the threats of habitat loss and climate change, makes understanding and protecting its habitat crucial for its survival.

The bird's chosen habitats aren't random; they correspond to its behavioral and physiological needs. The open tundra and grasslands provide the bird with ample space to perform its courtship flights and offer plenty of food and suitable ground for nesting. The Smith's Longspur's habitat preferences are intricately tied to its survival strategies and life cycle, reflecting the complex interplay between a species and its environment.



  1. The Smith's Longspur was named after Gideon B. Smith, a 19th-century physician and naturalist who first identified the bird in Maryland, USA.
  2. Despite its small size, the Smith's Longspur undertakes an impressive migration journey twice a year, traveling around 3000 miles each way between its breeding and wintering grounds.
  3. The Smith's Longspur's song is a complex, warbling melody often delivered during its elaborate flight displays. It has been described as one of the most beautiful songs in the bird world.
  4. Unlike many bird species, the female Smith's Longspur is primarily responsible for nest building, incubation, and parental care, while the male may mate with multiple females in a season.
  5. Smith's Longspur is listed as a "species of concern" by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service due to habitat loss and population decline.


Ecosystem Services

The Smith's Longspur, like other bird species, plays a vital role in its ecosystem. One of its main ecosystem services involves pest control. During the breeding season, when the bird incorporates a higher proportion of insects into its diet, it helps manage insect populations, benefiting the overall health of the tundra ecosystem.

In its winter habitat, the Smith's Longspur feeds extensively on seeds, aiding in seed dispersal. This process contributes to plant diversity and regeneration, promoting the health and resilience of grasslands and agricultural fields.

The bird's migratory behavior also serves an essential purpose in linking ecosystems. As it moves from the Arctic to southern grasslands, it aids in the transfer of nutrients and energy across a vast geographical range.

Further, the Smith's Longspur can act as an indicator species, providing insights into the health of its habitats. Changes in its population size and distribution can signal shifts in habitat conditions, helping in early detection of environmental changes.

Finally, the Smith's Longspur also contributes to human well-being by providing aesthetic and recreational value. Birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts enjoy observing these birds, enhancing outdoor experiences and contributing to nature-based tourism.



The Smith's Longspur is a truly fascinating bird, combining beauty and resilience in a small package. Its distinctive size and shape, stunning color pattern, unique behaviors, and specific habitat preferences make it a captivating subject for study and observation. Its contribution to its ecosystem as a pest controller, seed disperser, and ecological indicator underscores its importance in nature.

However, like many other wildlife species, the Smith's Longspur faces threats from habitat loss and climate change. As we continue to unravel the mysteries of this intriguing bird, it becomes increasingly apparent that conserving its habitats is crucial for its survival.

As we conclude our journey through the life and times of the Smith's Longspur, it becomes evident that every bird, no matter how small or elusive, has a story to tell. And in their stories, we find reflections of the larger narrative of nature and our role within it. After all, understanding and appreciating the natural world is the first step towards preserving it.