Daily Passage: Bean/Billboard Barrens

Thought I’d give you all a little Valentine’s Present in the form of Smith’s Longspur reproductive methods.

In Indiana, where nearly two-thirds of the state is agricultural land, billboards become, in two ways, high points. The signs, garish and attention-grabbing, are one of the few things I look forward to when I have to pass through that state. Fireworks! Strip clubs! Sex shops! Truck washes! Indiana, the Crossroads of America!

The billboards are the tallest thing around, too, now that the original habitat—trees and all—has been replaced with two plants: corn and soybeans. It’s understandable that most birds avoid these monocultures. But in mid-April, flocks of Smith’s Longspurs show up, bringing with them an uncommon charisma. These are small, scarce birds that spend their lives in various reaches of this continent’s open lands: winters in the southern Great Plains; summers in the far north, where tundra meets the taiga; stopovers in the bean and billboard barrens of Middle America. There, they rove, conversing amongst themselves with dry rattles, voices that fit right in a place where last year’s husks still rustle in the cold spring wind.

The billboards have plenty to say, too: JESUS IS COMING ARE YOU READY? FIND 5-15 MORE BUSHELS/ACRE YIELD THAN WITH OTHER HERBICIDES! PLUS SIZE WEDDING DRESSES NEXT EXIT! And under all this, the Smith’s put on their own fat reserves and nuptial garments, getting ready—but not for the afterlife. The males become pumpkin-orange; don harlequin masks; begin to sing sweet, lilting warbles. The ladies are plump, streaky, warm-brown—a wholesome-looking bird. If you were to watch one stroll around the stubble, pecking her way through weed seeds and waste grain, you’d never guess she was preparing for a week where she’ll copulate, on average, 350 times. It’s the highest copulatory rate for any species: wonder what Mike Pence has to say about that.

2 thoughts on “Daily Passage: Bean/Billboard Barrens”

  1. Rookie Birdher

    I did my first Smith’s Longspur quest in April 2022 to Lye Creek Prairie Burn near Crawfordsville, Indiana. I happily and unexpectedly met Clint, the owner of “The Burn.” Clint volunteered to provide personal tour! He explained where and how to look and drove me to nearby fields. We scanned harvested rows with downed grasses and saw many of these birds feeding and flying. And, if they were copulating, I was unaware.

    I learned a lot from Clint that day! Thank you for sharing this about the species. I’m amazed that people have actually watched these birds to know how active they are . . . what??

    1. Thanks for your sharing your experience with this species! You make a really valid point about those sorts of studies haha–I’m sure a lot of my favorite bird facts were learned through some really odd hours of observation…

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