Audubon and Sprague’s Pipit
You may have heard about the recent sale at Sotheby’s of an original Birds of America by John James Audubon. It sold for a record $10,270,000 making it the most expensive book in the world.
It may not be widely known, but Audubon spent much of the summer of 1843 in North Dakota. Perhaps one of the most significant events of the trip was the discovery of a new species of bird: Sprague’s Missouri Lark, or what we now call Sprague’s pipit. Audubon wrote of the discovery in his Birds of America. I quote:
“The first specimen of this truly interesting lark, was procured by Mr. Isaac Sprague, another of my companions, who shot it on the 19th of June 1843, near Fort Union, Upper Missouri.”
Sprague’s pipits are not easily observed, and a non-birder may dismiss it as a type of sparrow. Furthermore, displaying males may spend a half an hour or more in the air singing. No other bird is known to conduct such a long aerial display.
Audubon wrote that they had difficulty locating the bird when listening to their call. He wrote: “we at last looked upwards, and there saw several of these beautiful creatures singing in a continuous manner, and soaring at such an elevation, as to render them more or less difficult to discover with the eye, and at times some of them actually disappearing from our sight, in the clean air of that country.”
Audubon’s painting of Sprague’s Missouri Lark in his Birds of America shows the bird on the ground near a ball cactus. Perhaps Audubon had a soft spot for this prickly little plant.
Audubon’s Birds of America is now available online thanks to the National Audubon Society. We have put a link to the book with the script of this segment of Natural North Dakota. It is a bit tricky to find the painting and description of Sprague’s pipit, so we have also provided directions to that as well. You can access it at prairiepublic.org.
To see the online version of Audubon’s Birds of America, click here.
To quickly find the painting and description of Sprague’s pipit, click on the “List of Families” and then scroll down to the bottom. You will see the heading “New Species.” Sprague’s Missouri Lark is the third species listed. Clicking on that will bring up the painting and description of Sprague’s pipit.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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