E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Anthus rubescens (Tunstall)
American Pipit
Family: Motacillidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman

© Tim Zurowski  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #8758)


Distribution of Anthus rubescens in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Breeding adult
This plumage is held between early spring (March) and mid-summer (July), and is acquired prior to spring migration. The upperparts are greyish-olive to olive-brown with indistinct darker streaks on the back and scapulars. The wings (including the upperwing coverts) are darker brown or blackish-brown with broad buffy-brown or olive-buff feather edges (sometimes giving the impression of two pale wing bars). The relatively long, square-tipped tail is dark brown to blackish-brown with paler olive-brown central feathers and extensive white in the outer feathers (most of the outermost feather, tip of the second-outermost feather). The underparts range from rich buff to relatively bright pinkish-buff, usually with variable fine, dusky-brown streaking on the breast and sides (absent in some individuals, particularly in the subspecies A.r.alticola). The head is greyish-olive to olive-brown (often slightly greyer in tone than the rest of the upperparts) with a pale buff to brighter pinkish-buff throat and relatively broad supercilium. The iris is dark, the relatively short, slender, pointed bill is dark brown to black (darkest on the culmen), and the legs and feet are blackish or dark grey (sometimes slightly paler and tinged with brown or pink).

Non-breeding adult
This plumage is held between mid-summer (August) and late winter (February), and is acquired on the breeding grounds prior to fall migration. Non-breeding adults are similar in plumage to breeding-plumaged adults, but have darker olive-brown upperparts and paler buffy (sometimes nearly whitish) underparts with heavier and more prominent brown to blackish-brown streaking on the breast, sides, and flanks. The throat and supercilium are similarly paler buff to whitish-buff, with a prominent dark brown malar stripe separating the pale throat from the buffy moustachial area. The pale buffy wing bars are often more prominent in non-breeding plumage than they are in breeding plumage. Some non-breeding individuals can be unusually rich buff on the throat, supercilium, and underparts with relatively little dark streaking on the breast and sides. Bare part colouration is similar to that of the breeding adult, but the bill is typically paler and pinkish with a dark culmen and tip.

Juvenile
This plumage is held briefly during the late summer of the first year, but is lost in August or September prior to fall migration. It is similar to the non-breeding adult, but the upperparts have blacker and more extensive streaking as well as pale buffy feather edges (creating a scalloped appearance). In addition, the throat and breast are relatively heavily streaked with dark brown, with the streaking on the sides and flanks narrower and paler brown. The head pattern (particularly the supercilium) is less prominent than in the adult.

Measurements
Total Length: 16-17 cm
Mass: 18.5-26 g

Source: Verbeek and Hendricks (1994); Sibley (2000)

Biology

Identification

The American Pipit is likely to be confused only with other pipits, all of which are vagrants to British Columbia. Non-breeding and juvenile Red-throated Pipit, which is a rare migrant along the coast, is distinguished from American Pipit by its pale-streaked upperparts (giving the impression of pale ‘braces’ on the mantle), more prominent whitish wing bars, much bolder and more extensive blackish streaking on the underparts, heavier blackish malar stripe, and pink legs. Breeding-plumaged adults, which have variable (though usually extensive) pinkish-red to red on the head and upper breast are very distinctive and are unlikely to be confused with American Pipit. Sprague’s Pipit, which is a prairie species that is casual in the interior of B.C. (but has bred), is overall much paler and buffier, with a dark crown and distinctly unmarked and plain facial pattern that highlights the prominent dark eye. In addition, the upperparts are heavily streaked with black and buff and the underparts are almost unstreaked. Sprague’s Pipit is also shorter-tailed than American Pipit, giving it a noticeably different structure.
Vocalizations

The male’s song, which is usually (though not always) given in flight, is a slow series of high, repeated, clear or jingling phrases, often with different phrases given during the ascending phase of the display flight than are given during the descending phase; phrases are also usually given more rapidly during the descending phase. Song transcriptions for include chueet.…..chueet…..chueet……chueet……chueet……chueet and churee….. churee…..churee…..churee…..churee. Territorial males also give a rapid piptitititititi and a slower twet-twet-twet-tea-tea-tea-twet-twet during territorial disputes on the breeding grounds. Agitated individuals give a low, rising pwisp when a predator approaches the nest. The most commonly-heard calls throughout the year, and the only calls heard outside of the breeding season, are a high-pitched, chirping, single- or double-noted slip or slip-ip (commonly sounding like pip-it), often interspersed with a higher, lisping tseeep or tsitsiip. The call notes of A.r.japonicus are slightly higher-pitched than those of the North American subspecies, and the call is usually given as a single (rather than doubled) note.

Source: Verbeek and Hendricks (1994); Sibley (2000); Rosenberg (2006a)

Breeding Ecology

Courtship
Pairs usually form on the breeding grounds, although some individuals may pair up during spring migration. Males begin performing territorial song flights shortly after arrival on the breeding grounds. During these displays, which usually last 10-30 seconds, the male gradually climbs (often steeply) into the air while singing, remains for several seconds in the air while continuing to sing, and then descends to the ground with the wings held open and the tail feathers spread while singing a more rapid series of phrases than that which was given during the ascending phase of the display. Song flights can attain heights of up to 40 m above the ground, although there is considerable variation in the height of singing birds. The male also sings from the ground prior to performing the song flight.

Nest
Nest building commences immediately after pair formation. Both sexes contribute to the building of the nest, which takes an average of 5 days to complete. The nest is placed on the ground, usually partially protected by overhanging vegetation, rocks, or soil. It is a small cup (6-8 cm across, 3-5 cm deep) of dry grasses, sedges, leaves, moss, rootlets, lichens, and plant stems that is placed in a shallow hollow in the ground and is lined with fine grasses and hair.

Eggs
A single clutch of (2) 4-6 (7) eggs is laid in June (rarely late May) or early July and is incubated by the female for 14-15 days before hatching. Eggs are present in B.C. between late May and late July. The smooth, glossy eggs are whitish-grey to buffy-white and are sparsely to heavily spotted with brown and pale grey, sometimes with thin black streaks or with accumulated dark markings around the larger end of the egg forming a ‘wreath’. This species is not known to be a host for Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism.

Young
The young are fully altricial upon hatching, with pinkish skin and a sparse covering of long brownish-grey to blue-grey down (shorter and whiter on the underside); the mouth is reddish-orange and the gape flanges are pale yellow. Both parents tend to the nestlings (although only the female broods), which remain in the nest for 14-16 days before fledging. The fledglings are tended by the parents for an additional 2 weeks after leaving the nest, after which time they become partially independent for another 4 weeks before dispersing and becoming fully independent. Nestlings and dependent fledglings are present in B.C. between mid-June and mid-August.

Source: Verbeek and Hendricks (1994); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Campbell et al. (1997)
Foraging Ecology

This species forages almost exclusively on the ground, where it is commonly observed walking or running (rather than hopping) while constantly bobbing its tail. It consumes terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates (insects, caterpillars, spiders, marine worms, crustaceans, etc.) and seeds which it picks from the surface of the soil or (in the case of many invertebrates) gleans from low vegetation. In aquatic habitats, it sometimes wades into shallow water to pick at organisms on the surface of the water. During winter and migration, it is commonly attracted to habitats such as sewage ponds, piles of rotting seaweed, or the edges of alkaline wetlands where there is a high abundance insects (especially flies). It forages alone during the breeding season, but during winter and migration it is usually encountered in small to very large, loose flocks that often number into the hundreds of individuals.

Source: Verbeek and Hendricks (1994)

Habitat


This is a species of open habitats throughout the year. Breeding birds are found only above treeline in open, well-vegetated alpine tundra, alpine meadows, alpine boulder fields, talus, cliff ledges, and gravelly stream beds. Some birds breed in moist alpine draws among dwarf willow, birch, and alder shrubs. Wintering birds on the coast are found in a wide variety of open habitats such as agricultural fields, estuaries, beaches, dunes, airfields, golf courses, sports fields, and sewage lagoons. Migrants are found in habitats similar to those used by wintering birds, but are also found in open grasslands, river bars, snowfields, clearcuts, rights-of-way, and other open habitats in otherwise forested terrain. Fall migrants are also found at higher elevations in subalpine parkland and alpine tundra.

Source: Verbeek and Hendricks (1994); Campbell et al. (1997)

Distribution

Global Range

Breeds across arctic regions of North America, as well as south in alpine habitats of western North America to southern California, northern Baja California, Arizona, and New Mexico. It also breeds in northeastern Asia. It winters along the Pacific coast of North America north to southwestern B.C., as well as across much of the southern United States, Mexico, and northern Central America. Asian breeders winter in southern Asia. It is a widespread and common migrant throughout all of North America.
BC Distribution

Breeding
Fairly common to common breeder in alpine habitats throughout the entire B.C. mainland, from the Coast and Cascade ranges east to the Rocky Mountains. It is also an uncommon breeder at high elevations on Vancouver Island, but is absent from the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Winter
Very uncommon on extreme southeastern Vancouver Island (Victoria north to Nanaimo, rare farther north to Campbell River) and uncommon throughout the Lower Mainland east to Chilliwack (rare north to the Sunshine Coast); it is casual in winter farther north along the central and northern mainland coast and is rare and local on the Queen Charlotte Islands (although it is regular and uncommon at Sandspit and Masset, at least through December). It is very rare in winter in the Okanagan Valley of the south-central interior, and is accidental in the southeastern and central interior.

Migration
This species is a common to abundant migrant throughout the entire province, except for the Fort Nelson lowlands in extreme northeastern B.C. where it is uncommon. Very large numbers migrate through the interior as well as along the coast in both spring and fall. Spring migrants migrate primarily at lower elevations, as high elevations are covered with snow, but fall migrants can be observed at all elevations. The largest numbers, both in spring and fall, appear to move through coastal areas of the province.

Spring migrants are first detected on the south coast in late March or early April and in the southern interior in mid-April. Numbers build rapidly in both areas, with peak northward migration across southern portions of the province occurring in late April and early May. Numbers decline through the latter half of May, with occasional stragglers lingering into early June. Spring migrants reach northernmost portions of the province by mid- to late April, with peak northward movements through these areas during the first 3 weeks of May.

Fall migrants do not begin to move south, even in northern areas, until mid- to late August. Peak movements in northern B.C. are in early September, with most birds having departed northern B.C. by late September or early October (rarely lingering into late October or even November in the central interior). The first fall migrants generally appear at low elevations across southern B.C. in late August, with peak southward movements between mid-September and late October; smaller numbers of fall migrants regularly linger into November or even December across southern B.C., particularly along the coast.

Source: Campbell et al. (1997)

Conservation

Population and Conservation Status

This species is common to abundant throughout most of its range, including B.C., and is not considered a species of conservation concern. However, numbers of wintering birds have appear to be declining across much of the southern United States and, given its reliance on alpine and arctic tundra during the breeding season, this species may be susceptible to the effects of global warming (especially southern populations in the United States).

Source: Verbeek and Hendricks (1994)

Taxonomy


This species is part of a species complex that includes the Water Pipit (A.spinoletta) and Rock Pipit (A.petrosus) of Europe, and was formerly considered conspecific with Water Pipit. There are currently four subspecies of American Pipit recognized throughout its range, although recent molecular evidence suggests that the Asian subspecies (japonicus), which occurs marginally in North America, may be genetically distinct enough to warrant recognition as a distinct species. All four subspecies are know or suspected to occur in British Columbia.

The subspecies that occur in B.C. are as follows:

Anthus rubescens rubescens
This is the northern and eastern subspecies of American Pipit, breeding west to Alaska and the Yukon; it presumably occurs as a migrant in northern British Columbia, particularly in areas east of the Rocky Mountains. This subspecies has cinnamon-buff underparts during the breeding season, with narrow brown streaks on the breast and sides; it is slightly more richly-coloured on the underparts in breeding plumage than A.r.pacificus but is not as reddish as A.r.alticola. In non-breeding plumage, it averages slightly darker, browner, and more heavily streaked than A.r.alticola but slightly less heavily streaked than A.r.pacificus, but is probably indistinguishable from both subspecies in most circumstances.

Anthus rubescens pacificus Todd
This is the common and widespread subspecies in B.C., both as a breeder as well as a migrant and winter visitor, and ranges throughout most of western North America south of Alaska and the Yukon (except for the southern and central Rocky Mountains). It is very similar to A.r.rubescens in all plumages, but is slightly paler and buffier on the underparts in breeding plumage and averages somewhat more heavily streaked in winter plumage.

Anthus rubescens alticola Todd
This subspecies breeds throughout the Rocky Mountains of the western United States, possibly occurring north along the Rocky Mountains into southeastern B.C.; it has also been recorded once as a vagrant on the south coast of B.C. (Lower Mainland) in May. In breeding plumage, this subspecies is differentiated from the much more widespread A.r.pacificus by its brighter pinkish-buff underparts and supercilium, with less prominent streaking on the breast and sides (streaking virtually absent in many individuals). It is very similar to A.r.pacificus in non-breeding plumage but is slightly paler, greyer, and less heavily streaked (although most birds are probably indistinguishable in the field).

Anthus rubescens japonicus Temminck & Schlegel
This subspecies is commonly known as ‘Siberian Pipit’. It breeds in eastern Siberia and winters in southern Asia, but is a regular migrant through western Alaska and has been recorded on several occasions down the Pacific coast of North America to California. Although long suspected to occur in B.C., photographic evidence documenting its presence in the province has become available only recently, and it is now known from at least two photo-documented records (and additional undocumented sight records) from Vancouver Island. Separation of this subspecies from A.r.pacificus is very difficult, and many of the identification criteria are still being worked out. Breeding-plumaged birds are extremely unlikely to be observed in B.C., but are similar to A.r.pacificus (although more heavily streaked on the underparts). Non-breeding birds and juveniles are also similar to A.r.pacificus but are slightly larger and darker, with heavier streaking on the underparts, a heavier and more prominent brown malar stripe, and paler and more prominent wing bars. This subspecies has pinkish legs and feet, whereas those of A.r.pacificus tend to be black or dark grey (although some individuals may have paler, pink-toned legs).

Source: Verbeek and Hendricks (1994); Sibley (2000); Rosenberg (2006a)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
COSEWIC
NativeS5B, SNRNYellowNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References


Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2019. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2020-07-10 3:38:52 AM]
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