Bird Lore: American Pipit

American Pipit (Photo by LeRoy VanHee)
American Pipit (Photo by LeRoy VanHee)

The American Pipit, an uncommon bird in Edmonds, can be seen in the marsh during spring migration and along the shoreline in fall migration. Some can hear it calling a sharp pi-pit as it flies over head. While this bird is often seen in flocks, it is usually seen as a single bird in Edmonds. This slender, drab bird appears similar to a sparrow except for its thin bill and its habit of bobbing its tail. It was once known as Water Pipit.

LeRoy took his photo recently on Marina Beach. Blair’s photo also shows a bird on a beach. The prominent eyering, seen well in both photos, is a good field mark to distinguish this bird from local sparrows.

Photo by Blair Bernson
Photo by Blair Bernson

Its summer diet is mostly insects such as true bugs, flies, beetles, caterpillars and moths. Migrants along shorelines will eat tiny crustaceans and marine worms. In fall and winter, when this pipit can be found in plowed fields and short grass prairies, up to half of its diet is seeds of grasses and weeds. It forages by walking or running, pecking insects from low plants or from the ground. It also forages while walking in shallow water. It can sometimes be seen on or near summer snow fields in the Cascades and Olympics because insects frozen in the snow are a source of food.

The American Pipit breeds on tundra in the far north and above treeline in high mountains. The male defends its nesting territory with song-flight displays. It begins singing on the ground, flies up a 100 feet or more, then glides down with wings fully open, singing all the way.

The female builds the nest, which is a cup of grasses, sedges and weeds. It is lined with finer grass and sometimes with feathers or animal hairs. The nest is on the ground and in a sheltered site, protected by overhanging grasses, a small rock ledge or piece of sod. The female incubates the 4 – 6 eggs for about two weeks. The male feeds the female during incubation. Both parents feed the nestlings. The young birds leave the nest after about two weeks and the parents will continue to feed them for an additional two weeks. Young birds look similar to adults.

The American Pipit does not appear to be a long-lived species. Banding operations have produced one bird that was 4 years old. It can be a hardy species though. A snow storm once buried 17 nests in Wyoming’s Beartooth Mountains for 24 hours. All nestlings that were 11 days or older survived.

Conservation status of the American Pipit is that of least concern. There has been some decline in its global population, which is now estimated at 22 million birds. About 52 percent of the population spends part of the year in the U.S., 87 percent in Canada, and about 36 percent winters in Mexico.

The American Pipit’s song can be heard here: Its flight call, which can sometimes be heard along the Edmonds waterfront or the marsh during migration, is here: If you listen to the recordings you might note that they are shown for Buff-bellied Pipit. That is the British common name for a species designated as American Pipit by the American Ornithologists’ Union. The species Latin name, Anthus rubescens, is the same.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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