McCown's Longspur (Calcarius mccownii)
Associated Species: Other species that may use habitat in a similar way and/or respond similarly
to threats, management, and conservation activities include Mountain Plover and Horned Lark.
Distribution: McCown's Longspurs inhabit grasslands from southeastern Alberta east to
southern Saskatchewan, south through central North Dakota to northeastern Colorado. Within
Colorado, they breed primarily in northern Weld and northeastern Larimer counties.
Habitat Requirements: These birds breed in shortgrass, especially where vegetation cover is
sparse due to low soil moisture or grazing, or is interspersed with shrubs or taller grasses. They
also nest in grazed mixed-grass prairies. Individuals often use sparsely-vegetated hilltops for
displaying and nesting. They require areas of bare soil and often place nests on barren hillsides.
Territories in Colorado averaged 45-79% shortgrass and 13-23% bare ground, with little or no
forb or cactus cover and few woody plants (although nests initiated late in the season are more
likely to be near shrub cover, perhaps for protection from solar radiation). Longspurs breed in
Ecology: Longspurs arrive in Colorado in late March, and often linger into November. They
initiate nesting by mid May, and most young fledge by mid July. Attempts to produce second
broods may account for their extended residence in Colorado. They winter in the southern U.S.
and northern Mexico. Their diet consists primarily of grass and forb seeds, but also includes
grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and ants.
Management Issues and Conservation Recommendations: Conversion of native prairie to
cropland or other land cover types can reduce longspur populations. Preserve native shortgrass
prairie, especially in areas of sparsely-vegetated hills, a favored nesting site for this species.
Cattle grazing and prescribed burning may help create the short vegetation profile favored by
longspurs. Graze shortgrass at moderate intensity in summer, and graze taller grasses at
moderate to heavy intensity.
Tall, exotic grass species do not provide suitable habitat for this species. Avoid planting taller
grasses on CRP and other lands.
Status and Reasons for Concern: This species has a high conservation need locally and
throughout its range; it is on the national Watch List. This species is not adequately sampled by
BBS surveys within the shortgrass physiographic area, and the data collected between 1966 and
1996 are too sparse to allow meaningful analysis of trends. McCown's Longspurs were present
on an average of 9.71% (SE = 1.39) of the BBS routes run in Physiographic Area 36 in Colorado
during 1988-1997, at an average abundance of 2.88 (SE = 0.74) individuals per route. The mean
number of routes run each year was 29.2 (SE = 2.28). This species is monitored by MCB with
Biological Objective: Maintain or increase the species' distribution and abundance, based upon
results of the BBS and MCB monitoring programs.
Selected References: Andrews and Righter 1992, Creighton 1974, Creighton and Baldwin 1974,
Dechant et al. 1999, Graul 1980, Kingery 1998, With 1994.