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Wintering bird known for huge gatherings

Often mixed with snow buntings, Lapland longspurs (right) are so named for their elongated rear claw. Keith Corliss

In keeping with human nature, we sort, rank, and categorize nearly everything in our lives. It serves to keep ideas neat and orderly giving us at least the notion that we have some control of it all. In politics, there are Democrats and Republicans, in our laundry basket we sort whites from colors, for trees we broadly separate conifers (needled trees) from their deciduous (leaf dropping) cousins.

There is, of course, any number of subsets into which such entities could be placed. Take birds for example. We could split them into flyers and non-flyers (think ostrich), migrants and non-migrants, cavity nesters and actual nest builders, or seed lovers vs. carnivores. One division I personally use a lot is habitat preference. Two broad subsets of habitat readily apply to the Red River Valley, open country birds and forest birds.

Over 30 years ago, I helped out a couple friends who were putting up hay in southwestern Cass County. While still in the pickup approaching the field, the driver identified some birds along the rural road as longspurs. At the time I had never heard of longspurs and thought perhaps he was joking or making some cowboy reference. He wasn't.

There are four longspur species found in North America and North Dakota is one of the few states able to boast all four at one time of year or another. During winter we see but one, the Lapland longspur (Calcarius lapponicus). But all of them can be firmly placed in that open country category.

All longspurs are currently placed in the family Emberizidae, which includes sparrows and buntings. However, stay tuned for further developments as relationships among this diverse group are in a state of flux and continue to be reevaluated.

The Lapland longspur was first described in the early 18th century in, well, Lapland. That obviously makes this bird a circumpolar one, nesting high in the Arctic during its long summer months. It is totally migratory, with huge winter flocks found in the middle latitudes around the world, in particular the Great Plains on this continent.

Lapland longspurs look like a typical sparrow with muted colors, a short thick bill and streaked sides along a white breast. White outers on its tail are evident in flight. Males, during the spring, take on a regal look with a black face and chest along with a cinnamon colored nape. The eponymous trait unseen without close approach is its elongated hind claw.

Finding one right now is as simple as driving rural roads. The birds will often form mixed flocks with other open country denizens, namely snow buntings or horned larks. It's a fair bet to say any dark bird within a flock of snow buntings this time of year is a Lapland longspur.

Within the past couple of weeks I chanced upon a pile of corn being stored on the ground in rural Cass County. From a half mile away I could see there were quite a few birds nearby. Upon approach, the ground and immediate air surrounding this food source was thick with a large number of snow buntings, perhaps 12,000. As is their habit, a good number of Lapland longspurs were mingling with them at a ratio of about 25:1, totaling perhaps 500.

That number pales in comparison to some reported Lapland longspur flocks which have been in the multimillions. While flocking has certain advantages, there is a downside to such large gatherings. Ever heard the phrase 'don't put all your eggs in one basket?' John Terres wrote an article in 1948 describing a blizzard which struck the Midwest the night of March 13, 1904. An estimated 5 million longspurs perished in that storm.

Laplands won't stick around much after snowmelt, at which time they will be replaced by nesting chestnut-collared longspurs in the prairie landscape. But as long as we have the snow and not much else to do while driving rural roads, we may as well try and pick out these arctic visitors. And don't bother searching for them in town or at your feeders, they are definitely in the open country division.