Bay Journal

Horned lark sighting enough to brighten any winter day

  • By Michael Burke on January 01, 2013
The face of horned larks found in the Chesapeake region is yellow, unlike those in the Southwest, which sport a clay-
colored face. (G. Bailey / VIREO)

It started as an unremarkable day, neither winter nor spring. A weak winter sun was playing hide-and-seek with an endless parade of low, scuttling clouds. Gauzy light illuminated the field in front of us. The temperature was in the 40s; not quite warm, but not bad for midwinter.

We had come here to watch the birds that were walking and running around in the field, feasting on the plentiful seeds. Horned larks (Eremophila alpestris) are regular residents of the Chesapeake region, but they are always easiest to spot when they gather in large flocks every winter to forage collectively.

The larks were in a relatively compact group. A few other birds joined the larks, but the other species were spread loosely across the landscape.

We had pulled over to the shoulder of this rural Delaware road and were still at a distance from the flock. Behavior distinguished the larks from the other birds, even from this vantage point. The larks were all walking or running about. The other birds were hopping and flitting about in extremely short flights, scattered across the field.

I gingerly got out of the car, taking care of a very tender hip. With the car serving as a crutch, I pulled out the binoculars, and the horned larks came into focus.

These songbirds are a bit smaller than a robin. They are barely more than 7 inches from their stout bills to the end of their squared-off tails. They stand on longish legs. The wings and back are a cryptic pattern of brown, white, gray and black. Underneath, they are light-colored. By far, the most interesting feathering is on the bird's head.

Male horned larks have a dark mask and mustache, a black breast band and a set of matching black feathers on the top of the bird's head that can stand erect during breeding season, giving the bird its "horns." To me, the horns look more like unruly cowlicks. Regardless of what you call them, these feathers are visually compelling. The face of the Chesapeake horned lark is yellow. The bill is dark and rather stout.

Females lack the black mask and mustache as well as the horns. Their faces are a pale yellow.

There is considerable variation in color intensity of the birds as one travels across the country. In the desert Southwest, the horned larks are much paler overall. The yellow face common on Eastern birds is replaced by pale clay colors in the Southwest.

The horned lark is found throughout North America, including every Canadian province, every U.S. state on the continent, and down through Mexico and into Central America. These birds are resident in the entire Chesapeake region and throughout much of their range in the United States.

Some of the birds migrate high up into the Arctic tundra during the summer. Any place that has a carpet of grass like this Delaware sod farm is likely to attract these birds. Open ground with short grass is ideal habitat. During much of the year, the birds feed on grasses and weed seeds, but they will also take insects, which they typically feed to their young.

There are two lark species in North America, but only the horned lark is native to this continent. The second species, the skylark, was introduced to British Columbia many years ago and a self-breeding population still exists there, although its numbers appear to be declining. This rare species in North America has one of the most beautiful songs of any bird and was the subject of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem, "To a Skylark," that has been a regular part of English literature classes.

The horned lark has a high, tinkling song. Unfortunately, its voice is rather weak and lacks the rich variety of notes sung by its famous cousin.

Horned larks are also declining in numbers, although the overall population remains strong. As reforestation recaptures some of the landscape, horned larks are seeing their ideal habitat shrink. Without appropriate habitat, numbers inevitably decline.

I hadn't been able to leave my perch resting against the car. The day was unremarkable in many ways. The weather was unseasonably warm, but not record-breaking. The weak sun lacked definition and so did much of the muted winter landscape. Barren fields surrounded us. A few dozen songbirds in a muddy field failed to attract the attention of a single driver that sped by.

But it was also a day when a flock of the continent's only native lark species was on easy display. And it was the first day that I could venture forth to enjoy a familiar pastime, even if I couldn't yet take more than a few steps.

In other words, it was a remarkable day indeed.

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About Michael Burke

Mike Burke is an amateur naturalist who lives in Cheverly, MD.

Read more articles by Michael Burke

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