Mike Jacobs: Horned larks follow snow melt and signal spring
A single horned lark is not a sign of spring. I’ve seen horned larks in the Red River Valley in every month of the year. In December and January, these are stragglers, birds left behind as migration began, whether because of inclination or disability no one can be sure.
As soon as I turned off the interstate highway on my way home from Bismarck last week, I began noticing small birds in loose flocks moving along the highway. These had to be horned larks, and spring has to be coming. Horned larks are among the first reliable signs of this change in seasons.
By the end of the week, horned larks were numerous in the Red River Valley, too, even though the valley remains mostly snow covered.
No matter to the larks.
Note the plural word “larks.” A single horned lark is not a sign of spring. I’ve seen horned larks in the Red River Valley in every month of the year. In December and January, these are stragglers, birds left behind as migration began, whether because of inclination or disability no one can be sure.
Nor is a flock of birds along a rural highway in itself a sign of spring. Snow buntings occur in numbers throughout the winter. Their disappearance is more indicative of seasonal change. As spring advances, the buntings move north – far north. Snow buntings nest farther north than any other land bird.
Horned larks are hardy birds, as well, but they occur almost everywhere in North America, except in forested areas. Like snow buntings, horned larks are birds of open country.
The Red River Valley is border country for horned larks. Wintering birds occur across southern and western North Dakota, although numbers vary from year to year. The critical element seems to be bare ground. As long as the larks have access to dirt, they can survive. This influences their migration, as well. As the suns strengthens and the snow melts, bare ground begins to appear. Larks soon follow. Most years, this occurs about the middle of February in our area.
They are ground-loving birds, most of the time. This is one way to be certain that a moving flock is composed of horned larks. Their flocks are loose, and they stick close to the ground. Flocks of snow buntings are more tightly packed, and they appear to roll across the country. The buntings, too, are ground loving, but they are more inclined to feed on standing weeds; horned larks are gleaners, picking their provender right off the ground.
The matter is a little more complicated; horned larks sometimes mix in with flocks of snow buntings. In that case, the overall appearance of the birds provides the best clue to identification. Horned larks are gray; snow buntings appear white in flight.
Both species are wonderfully camouflaged on the ground, however; good luck picking either species out of a field of stubble.
Horned larks nest in our area, and their courtship ritual begins about the middle of March. This is an aerial display involving circles and glides. Here’s a description by Robert Beason from the American Ornithologists’ Union monograph on horned larks: “Before taking off on a song flight, male stands erect with horns raised and feathers sleeked; climbs silently at a steep angle (about 60 degrees). If a strong breeze is blowing, faces into it and climbs in a stair-step manner; otherwise ascends in a wide helix. At a height of about 165 meters spreads wings and tail and glides while delivering songs. Then regains altitude and repeats the song. … Songs usually consist of ascending notes followed by a rapid, slurred series of chittered notes that decrease and then increase in pitch. ...” Beaton calls this the “intermittent” song. There’s a variation, which he calls “recitative,” that includes a “long series of apparently rambling notes followed by a rapid, slurred series of notes.” Horned larks also sing from the ground, apparently to advertise their territory.
A lark on the ground is hard to see; the gray-brown tones of its feathers blend into the background. The best chance to get a close look is probably to stop the car, wait patiently and look closely. Patience and luck might result in a good look at a horned lark. Patience first. Luck follows effort.
A good look at a lark reveals a unique facial pattern consisting of a black mask around the eyes and on the sides of the cheeks, which are otherwise yellow bordered with white. The area immediately below the bill – the chin, so to speak – is usually yellow bordered by black on the throat and upper part of the breast. The breast is grayish white and the back gray-brown – adapted, it turns out, to match the color of the soil where the birds nest. This has produced no fewer than 21 subspecies of horned larks across the Northern Hemisphere.
Then there are the horns, of course: tiny curls of feathers on each side of a flattish forehead.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.