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chestnut-collared longspur

Calcarius ornatus

What do they look like?

Chestnut-collared longspurs are smaller than their 3 closest relatives, which are Smith's longspurs, McCown's longspurs, and Lapland longspurs. These four kinds of birds have a long, thin claw that sticks out from their back toe. Chestnut-collared longspurs are 13 to 16.5 cm long, and weigh 18 to 25 g. They have long, pointy wings that are 25 to 27 cm wide. Males have longer wingspans and tails than females. Males have wingspans that are 81 to 91 mm long, and female wingspans are 76 to 85 mm long. When they are flying, a black triangle or fan surrounded by white is visible on their tail. Males in the breeding season have bright chestnut brown on the back of their neck, black on their breast and top of their heads, and yellow, tan, or white on their cheeks and top of their throat. In the winter, the tips of their feathers turn tan, so the black and chestnut brown are harder to see. Females in the breeding season are grayish tan and plain like sparrows. They look like a very dull version of the males. Females look the same in the winter, but also get tan tips on their feathers. Young chestnut-collared sparrows look like female adults but have heavy streaks on their chest, sides, and tops of their heads. Chestnut-collared longspurs have a small beak shaped like a cone. (DuBois, 1937; Hill and Gould, 1997; Vuilleumier, 2009)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    18 to 23 g
    0.63 to 0.81 oz
  • Range length
    13 to 16.5 cm
    5.12 to 6.50 in
  • Range wingspan
    25 to 27 cm
    9.84 to 10.63 in

Where do they live?

Chestnut-collared longspurs live in the prairies of North America, and travel between summer and winter locations. In the summer, they are mostly found east of the Rocky Mountains in the prairies of Canada and the Great Plains of the United States. In the United States they are mostly found in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, but also in eastern Wyoming, northeast Colorado, northwest Nebraska and western Minnesota. They spend the winter in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, and then head north between February and April. In the winter, they are normally found from eastern Arizona to central Kansas, and south through northwest Texas and northern Mexico. (Hill and Gould, 1997)

What kind of habitat do they need?

In the summer, chestnut-collared longspurs most often live in prairies with short or mixed grasses. They also live in tall grass prairies, grazing fields, and airstrips. Scientists don't know why, but their nests are often located near dried-out cow dung patties. They are more likely to reproduce successfully if they live around native grasses, but don't seem to prefer this. On their way between summer and winter locations, they stop in grasslands and farm fields. They spend the winter in deserts, grasslands, plateaus and farm fields where there are plants shorter than .5 m tall. Chestnut-collared longspurs especially like places that have somewhere to get water. (Davis, 2005; Hill and Gould, 1997; Lloyd and Martin, 2005)

How do they reproduce?

Chestnut-collared longspurs form pairs of one male and one female that spend time together, but they regularly mate with others that aren't their partners. Males sing and use body language to attract females. Males court females by fanning their wings, lifting their heads and the feathers on the back of their neck, bowing their heads, or imitating female postures. Sometimes, males chase females. Females respond by flying toward males, sometimes while holding nesting materials. Pairs spend about 90% of their time within 10 m from each other before and during egg laying. Scientists don't know if the pairs stay together during the winter or not. However, both males and females defend their partners and chase off others. Fights between females are longer than fights between males and continue even after one of them retreats. (Hill and Gould, 1997)

Most males begin to arrive at the summer breeding location 1 to 2 weeks before the first females. Males establish their territories and then form pairs with females. The pairs build nests and have their first set of eggs in early or mid-May. Then, 6 to 18 days after those chicks leave the nest, they build a new nest for the next set of eggs. If something happens to the eggs or chicks, females can build another nest in 4 to 12 days. One pair can have up to 4 sets of eggs if the first ones don't work. Females dig out a small hollow in the ground and build the nests out of grasses. Females usually lay 3 to 5 eggs that take 10 to 12.5 days to hatch. The young take 1 to 1.5 hours to get out of the eggs, and are covered in tan or gray soft downy feathers when they are born. By the next day, they start to open their mouths for food. By the fourth day, they open their eyes and start to make soft peeping noises. By day 6, they start to get feathers and respond to things moving in front of their eyes. By day 9, they can respond with noises to their parents. In 9 to 14 days, they leave the nest, but they keep getting food from their parents for up to 24 days. Males do most of the caring for young. (Hill and Gould, 1997; Lynn and Wingfield, 2003)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Chestnut-collared longspurs typically produce 2 broods per breeding season, but have been known to produce 3 broods on occasion.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs between late April to mid-May through mid-to-late July, but varies annually and geographically.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 15
  • Range time to hatching
    10 to 15 days
  • Range fledging age
    9 to 14 days
  • Range time to independence
    24 (high) days

Females build the nests by themselves. They do almost all of the work staying with the young to keep them warm, which is about half of the day in their first few days of life. Males usually perch near the nest while the eggs are waiting to hatch and defend the nest from predators. Both parents care for the baby chicks. They provide shade when it's really hot, distract predators, and find food for them. They keep feeding the young until about 24 days after they hatch or 14 days after they leave the nest. At this point, parents start ignoring the young if they keep begging, or even chase them away aggressively. If females lay another set of eggs, males take over most of the work of caring for the young. Both parents clean the nest by getting out dead chicks, eggshells, and fecal sacs. (Hill and Gould, 1997; Lynn and Wingfield, 2003; Wyckoff, 1983)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

The record for the longest life of a chestnut-collared longspur in the wild is 4 years. (Hill and Gould, 1997; Vuilleumier, 2009)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 (high) years

How do they behave?

Chestnut-collared longspurs walk, run, and roost on the ground. They are also good at flying, and move up and down while they fly. When they look for food while walking, they bob their heads a lot. Chestnut-collared longspurs take baths in rain puddles, and also dust-bathe. Chestnut-collared longspurs are territorial, but only during the breeding season. They sometimes leave their territory to look for food. Males often fight with each other along the edges of their territories in the breeding season. If they are fighting in the air, they beat each other with their wings or use their beaks and feet. Before and after they fight, they often stretch their necks up and raise their bills away from each other at a 45 degree angle. Females attack intruding females, too, and will keep chasing and pecking even after one of them retreats. They chase off other species too, including horned larks, McCown's longspurs, Baird's sparrows, and western meadowlarks. They also chase brown-headed cowbirds, which are parasites to their nests. In the winter and during their migration, they are not territorial and gather together in flocks with chestnut-collared longspurs and other birds. (Hill and Gould, 1997)

  • Range territory size
    0.0025 to 0.04 km^2

Home Range

Chestnut-collared longspurs return to their summer breeding spots more than one year in a row. Males are more likely to go back to the same site than females. Females will also travel twice as far to get to a new site compared to males. (Hill and Gould, 1997)

How do they communicate with each other?

Male chestnut-collared longspurs may sing while perched near the nest or during aerial displays, serving the purposes of territory defense or mate attraction. Their short melodious song has been compared to that of western meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta), and is only rarely heard during wintering. Additionally, males will also sound an extreme alarm call during conspecific aggression or when humans are in close proximity to fledglings. In the presence of fledglings, males often whistle a “location” call after which older fledglings will whistle back a response. Females are not known to sing but do produce a contact or flocking call also used by males and juveniles. (Hill and Gould, 1997)

Male chestnut-collared longspurs sing to defend their territories and attract mates. They may sing while sitting near the nest or while flying in special patters to communicate. Their song is short and melodious and is similar to the song of western meadowlarks. They rarely sing during the winter. Males also have an alarm call when they are threatened by other chestnut-collared longspurs, or if humans are close to their chicks. Right after the chicks can fly, adult males whistle a location call. This means that they whistle and the young whistle back. Females don't make much noise, but do make a contact call similar to males and young. (Hill and Gould, 1997)

What do they eat?

Chestnut-collared longspurs eat seeds, insects, and spiders directly from the ground or from plants. In the summer, most of their diet is crickets, grasshoppers, and beetles. They feed their young a bigger variety of foods than other songbirds. Still, about 85% of what they feed their young is grasshoppers. When humans kill grasshoppers because they eat crops, less chestnut-collared longspurs produce young. In the winter, they only eat seeds, which are mostly from grasses. (Hill and Gould, 1997; Martin, et al., 1998; Sedgwick, 2004)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Chestnut-collared longspurs are eaten by Cooper's hawks, burrowing owls, coyotes, northern harriers, western rattlesnakes, American crows, merlins, American kestrels, loggerhead shrikes, striped skunks, long-tailed weasels, deer mice, pine snakes, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, badgers, garter snakes, Richardson's ground squirrels, and red foxes. Nestlings and eggs are especially likely to be eaten. To avoid predators, chestnut-collared longspurs gather in groups of 4 to 8 and attack predators. Females and males watching over the nest try to distract predators from the nest. (Hill and Gould, 1997)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Chestnut-collared longspurs keep numbers of plant-eating insects in check, and all of the seeds they eat in the winter impacts the reproduction of those plants. Chestnut-collared longspurs are eaten by many animals. They are also hosts to fleas, blowfly larvae, mites, and chewing lice. Brown-headed cowbirds are nest parasites to them. This means brown-headed cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of chestnut-collared longspurs, hoping that chestnut-collared longspurs will take care of their eggs. (Hill and Gould, 1997; Wiens, 1973)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

Chestnut-collared longspurs aren't known to have any negative impacts on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Chestnut-collared longspurs eat grasshoppers, which eat crops grown by farmers. This means that chestnut-collared longspurs are good for farming. (Hill and Gould, 1997)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Chestnut-collared longspurs are classified as "near threatened" on the the IUCN Red List. Their greatest threats are habitat loss to building buildings and farming, impacts of brown-headed cowbirds, and predation by so many species.

Some more information...

Closest relatives of chestnut-collared longspurs were found in Kansas in fossils from the Pleistocene era, which was 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago. (Downs, 1954)


Lani Manion (author), Minnesota State University, Mankato, Robert Sorensen (editor), Minnesota State University, Mankato, Jeremy Wright (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.


Bailey, A., R. Niedrach, A. Bailey. 1938. The Chestnut-Collared Longspur in Colorado. The Wilson Bulletin, 50/4: 243-246.

Davis, S., D. Klippenstine, R. Brigham. 2002. Does Egg Rejection Account for the Low Incidence of Cowbird Parasitism in Chestnut-Collared. The Auk, 119/2: 556-560.

Davis, S. 2005. Nest-Site Selection Patterns and the Influence of Vegetation on Nest Survival of Mixed-Grass Prairie Passerines. The Condor, 107/3: 605-616.

Downs, T. 1954. Pleistocene Birds from the Jones Fauna of Kansas. The Condor, 56/4: 207-221.

DuBois, A. 1937. Notes on Coloration and Habits of the Chestnut-Collared Longspur. The Condor, 39/3: 104-107. Accessed February 08, 2012 at ..

Hill, D., L. Gould. 1997. Chestnut-collared Longspur. The Birds of North America, 288: 1-20.

Kelly, J., D. Hawksworth, R. Meyer. 2006. Abundance of Non-Breeding Horned Larks and Chestnut-Collared Longspurs on Grazed andRested Semiarid Grassland. The Southwestern Naturalist, 51/2: 172-180.

Lloyd, J., T. Martin. 2005. Reproductive Success of Chestnut-Collared Longspurs in Native and Exotic Grassland. The Condor, 107/2: 363-374.

Lynn, S., J. Wingfield. 2003. Male Chestnut-Collared Longspurs Are Essential for Nestling Survival: A Removal Study. The Condor, 105/1: 154-158.

Martin, P., D. Johnson, D. Forsyth, B. Hill. 1998. Indirect effects of the pyrethroid insecticide deltamethrin on reproductive success of chestnut collared longspurs. Ectotoxicology, 7: 89-97. Accessed August 13, 2012 at

Price, 2012. "" (On-line). The Website of the International Society of Phthirapterists. Accessed August 13, 2012 at

Sedgwick, J. 2004. "Chestnut-collared longspur (Calcarius ornatus): A Technical Conservation Assessment" (On-line pdf). Accessed August 13, 2012 at

Spicer, G. 1978. A new species and several new host records of Avian nasal mites (Acarina: Rhinonyssinae, Turbinoptinae). The Journal of Parasitology, 64/5: 891-894.

Vuilleumier, F. 2009. Birds of North America. London: DK.

Wiens, J. 1973. Pattern and Process in Grassland Bird Communities. Ecological Monographs, 43/2: 237-270.

Wyckoff, A. 1983. Male "Incubation" in a Chestnut-Collared Longspur. The Wilson Bulletin,, 95/3: 472.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Manion, L. 2012. "Calcarius ornatus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 28, 2024 at

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