Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Abundant horned larks tend to be overlooked
A drive in the country is the way to find larks, especially when the snow obscures just about every other part of the landscape.
GRAND FORKS – In my opinion, the horned lark deserves more attention than it gets. This little bird of the open country is an early spring migrant. In open winters, some horned larks are stragglers in our area. I believe I’ve encountered them in every month of the year.
This year, Dave Lambeth reports that larks have been around for a month, at least, despite the snow. I first saw horned larks in a little drive in the country early in the week.
A drive in the country is the way to find larks, especially when the snow obscures just about every other part of the landscape. Roadsides are open. What’s more, they are rich in spilled seed, which sustains the horned larks as spring advances.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to get a good look at a horned lark, and that has diminished their appeal to humans, birders and others alike. This is lamentable, because the lark is a handsome bird. The horned lark is also an excellent singer. In my mind, it rivals the state bird, the western meadowlark, and perhaps should hold pride-of-place in that regard. No state agrees, however; the western meadowlark is the avian emblem of six states and the horned lark of none.
This is not the only context in which horned larks and meadowlarks might be evaluated side by side. To start with, though, the meadowlark is an imposter. It is not a lark at all, but a close relative of the blackbirds. The horned lark is a true lark, the only representative of the lark family native to North America. The family is a large one, with representatives across Europe and Asia. The best known of these is the skylark, which has been introduced and established in North America.
The meadowlark endures itself to the people of the plains both in its appearance and its song. The meadowlarks’ bright yellow breast is marked with a dark chevron, a v-shape that stands out against and immediately identifies the bird. The meadowlark sings from these open perches, and its song is strong and musical. It is probably the one bird song that every plains dweller immediately recognizes.
Alas for the horned lark. It is not a perching bird, almost always being found on the ground. It is cryptically colored in brown and gray, exactly matching the landscape. The meadowlark has this protective coloration, too. Its upper parts are marked with stripes that imitate leaves of grass.
The horned lark is a talented musician, perhaps ranking with the much-acclaimed European skylark. Like the skylark, it sings while it soars, further frustrating those wanting to get a good look at the bird.
Like meadowlarks, horned larks are ground nesters. Meadowlarks generally seek heavier cover, and they build protective roofs of grass over their nests. Horned larks are satisfied with a shallow depression in the ground. The eggs are protected by their color, which blends in nicely with almost any kind of soil, but of course the eggs are vulnerable to passing predators, whether winged, four-footed or scaled.
Meadowlarks are larger than horned larks, and more conspicuous in plumage and in song. So, it stands to reason that horned larks tend to be overlooked.
Horned larks are abundant, probably outnumbering meadowlarks by several times across the Great Plains states. Unlike meadowlarks, which usually migrate in small groups, horned larks gang up. Migrating flocks can reach impressive numbers – certainly numbers in four figures.
Often, however, these are mixed flocks. I was able to pick out snow buntings in a group of horned larks that I got a look at. I searched also for Lapland longspurs, but I didn’t see any of those. Snow buntings nest farther north than any other land bird, and Lapland buntings aren’t far behind. Both of these species pass through the Red River Valley in large numbers, often in mixed flocks. It takes patience to sort the species from one another. That makes a pleasant way to spend an interlude on an early spring day – an interlude improved because the birder doesn’t have to get out of the car. A car is an excellent blind for birders.
A personal note
A health issue kept me cooped up much of this past winter and early spring, but I’m back, and so are the birds and so is the bird column.
Thank you for your patience.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.