Photos of Sprague’s Pipit (The Cornell Lab from their website)

The survival of Sprague’s Pipit (called the “Missouri Skylark” by Seton) depends upon the existence of virgin prairie. Once found from Mexico to Manitoba, it is now very rare due to habitat destruction. This decline was first noted by Seton as part of an article in The Auk, “Additions to the List of Manitoban Birds,” Pg. 49, January 1893. See more at The Cornell Lab, All About Birds.          


While the scientific name of this bird seems to have survived intact, its current common name is about to change. “Sprague” will be deleted, and a new name selected. This is one of 152 species the American Ornithological Society will change in the coming year or so. The old names “honored” various people, including the dishonorable. As well, neither Sprague nor any other person has claim on this or any other bird: the birds are of and for themselves as I am sure Seton would agree.

And this too! One ancestor to the American Ornithological Society (2016) is the American Ornithologists Union created in 1883 with Seton as an early member in 1885.

Following below is a quote from this early Seton journal article, a warning about wildlife population decline resulting from habitat loss. The first of many he would give us over the next several decades:


“Anthus spraguei. MISSOURI SKYLARK. This bird was very abundant on the Big Plain in 1882, but in 1892 I failed to see or hear a single individual in the country. They appear to have totally disappeared. This is unquestionably owing to the breaking up of the virgin prairie. The progress of agriculture has apparently affected this more than any other species, but has also wrought marked changes in the distribution of several.

The Pinnated Grouse, as well as the Sharp -tailed Grouse, the Dove, the Shore Lark, the Meadowlark, and the Vesper Sparrow have all increased remarkably within the last ten years. The same may be said of all the Blackbirds excepting the Cowbird. The Passenger Pigeon, Swainson’s Hawk and several of the Ducks have suffered, but the Missouri Skylark alone seems to have found itself quite unable to cope with the surroundings of the new order of things.”


Not only did Seton set off the alarm regarding the danger to wildlife populations, he also provided new ways to view wildlife. His bird identification method discussed elsewhere on this site provided one of his most lasting contributions. In the PREFACE of A Field Guide to Western Birds (1941) Roger Tory Peterson began the book by writing three paragraphs about Seton, including this:

“It was that pioneer, Ernest Thompson Seton, who first tried the idea of pattern diagrams as a method of teaching bird identification. Years ago he published some diagrammatic plates in The Auk, showing how Hawks and Owls look in flight overhead…It was on this idea that my Field Guide to the Birds, the Eastern counterpart to this volume was based. It is a handbook…wherein live birds may be run down by impressions, patterns, and distinctive marks…”


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