The horned lark is among the first bird migrants to return to the Red River Valley. That’s because the larks don’t have far to go. They hang out in the southwestern half of North Dakota, imagined by drawing a line from the southeastern most corner of the state to its northwestern most corner. Roughly speaking, horned larks occur to the south and west of the line, but not north and east of it.

Some stragglers are seen in some winters northeast of the line. Some winters, the birds move farther south. It’s not hard to understand their motivations, for horned larks are very particular birds. They seek bare ground. Most winters, that’s a rare commodity in the Red River Valley. Farther west, however, bare ground is more frequent, and snowmelt occurs earlier.

The first horned larks appear as soon as bare ground occurs. This means they show up along rural roads and in summer-fallowed fields, which absorb more light and shed snow cover earlier than grasslands and fields with crop residue.

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The first horned larks on my 2021 list showed up last week along state Highway 18 north of Larimore, N.D., one of my commuting routes. They’ve been around each day since, though in surprisingly small numbers. This suggests to me that these birds might be a vanguard of a larger migration to come.

Horned larks sometimes form large flocks, but of course that is more likely to happen as northbound birds encounter adverse conditions, settle down for a bit of time and then move on together. Many of the birds are bound for the Arctic. Others spread out wherever attractive nesting areas occur. For horned larks, that means a fairly good-sized area with sparse vegetation. This seems an odd choice, but the horned lark has its reasons.

First, it is superbly equipped to disappear against a plain background. It is a pale grayish-brown bird and so blends in well on bare earth or in sparse vegetation. The birds hug the ground when they nest. I’ve several times come close to stepping on one.

The other way that horned larks have adapted to open country is more dramatic. They court mates from the air in spectacular circling flights that can reach 100 feet or more above the ground. The object of these displays watches from below – and listens, as well – for the horned lark is an accomplished singer.

Aerial displays such as these are fairly common among open country birds. Sprague’s pipits court in this way, and so do northern harriers. The pipit is rather like the horned lark – a small, plain bird – but the harrier is a predator almost as large and quite a bit trimmer and sleeker than a crow.

Alas, these courtship displays have become less common. Much shortgrass habitat has disappeared, and field sizes have grown very much larger. Modern tillage equipment eliminates cover and, since tillage occurs later in the year than horned lark courtship, it probably destroys quite a few horned lark homes.

The Manitoba Naturalists Society has tracked horned lark numbers. Quoting their publication “The Birds of Manitoba”:

“Bird survey data indicate that this species increased in southern Manitoba during the 1970s, peaked in the early 1980s, and then declined dramatically. ... Overall survey numbers in the late 1990s were about one-quarter of the peak in the 1980s.”

I don’t have North Dakota data at hand, but it surely would reflect the experience in Manitoba.

This is not to say the horned lark is an endangered species, though. Habitat for these birds remains in shortgrass prairies, especially in overgrazed pasture – a harkening to the days of enormous buffalo herds that created prime habitat for horned larks.

Horned larks are not the only early migrants. I saw reports of starlings, brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets this week. Starlings and creepers might conceivably have wintered in the area. Golden-crowned kinglets are hardy birds, but they don’t usually attempt to overwinter here.

A gang of redpolls still shows up at my feeder array every day, though I’m conscious that the gang is shrinking in size. The three American tree sparrows that spend most of the winter with me have disappeared, perhaps to their nesting grounds in the Canadian forests.

I’m listening for meadowlarks and watching for bluebirds, species that are also among early arrivals here.

It may not quite be spring, despite the week’s warm weather, but spring is coming, and so are the birds.

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Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs