About the Horned Lark
The Horned Lark is the only lark species native to North America. It is also found across much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, at one season or another. This bird's namesake “horns” are actually curled tufts of black feathers that can be erected and are usually visible only at close range. Male birds sport these adornments during the breeding season, at times raising or lowering them expressively.
If you live in or frequent the countryside, you likely know the Horned Lark, along with the Killdeer, Eastern or Western Meadowlark, and American Kestrel. But if your orbit is mainly urban or suburban, it may take a change of scenery to help you find this bird.
Although widespread and common in many treeless landscapes, the Horned Lark doesn't always prove easy to find.
Tinkling Bells on Wide-open Spaces
Horned Larks can be difficult to spot because, except for their bold head patterns, they are cryptically colored, their tan-to-gray backs shielding them from view among similarly colored soil, stubble, and stone. Across expansive fields and plains, even active flocks are hard to notice as they forage, walking or running in erratic patterns as they glean seeds and pursue small insects.
Here are a few “hacks” for finding this bird: First, it's easier to see Horned Larks in winter when snow covers the ground and the birds stand out against the white backdrop, often in flocks with Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. Especially in winter, Horned Larks can be seen foraging along roadsides, in feedlots, and in fields where manure and waste grain are spread, especially when snow cover is heavy.
During breeding season, however, the easiest way to locate larks is by ear, thanks to their distinctive and pleasing song. Even if a landscape seems birdless, the lark's presence is undeniable when its tinkling song is heard. Then, it's usually just a matter of patience and time before you catch sight of the bird.
Songs and Sounds
The Horned Lark sings its sweet, tinkling song on the wing or on the ground. One- and two-noted calls have a characteristic sweet quality and are most often heard in fall and winter.
Listen to the Horned Lark's song and call here:
Breeding and Feeding
Taking the Plunge
The courtship flight of the male Horned Lark illustrates much of what we love about birds: beauty, song, and feats of athleticism humans can only dream of. Like the Sprague's Pipit, the male Horned Lark rises steeply and silently into the sky, ascending hundreds of feet above open fields. Then, he fills the sky with a tinkling cascade of notes before plunging toward the ground in pursuit of the female's attention.
Horned Larks are early nesters, beginning as early as February even in northern states, where snowstorms are a risk. This prolific species may raise as many as three broods each year.
The female chooses a nest site on bare ground, either a natural depression or one she excavates herself with her bill and feet. She lines the depression with vegetation and often adds a flat "doorstep" of pebbles, corncobs, or dung on one side. The purpose of this "paved" area is still unknown, although some scientists suspect that it serves to cover the fresh dirt from nest excavation, helping to conceal the site ― much as Burrowing Owls use dung to distract predators. Another possible benefit: These heavier objects may shelter lighter materials from harsh wind during nest construction.
The female lays three to four eggs, which she incubates for up to 12 days. After the young hatch, both parents feed them at the nest, also for up to 12 days.
Out in the Open
Horned Larks prefer habitats with bare ground or very short vegetation. Across North America, this includes a wide variety of treeless landscapes, from sea level to high in the Rockies. Habitats include short-grass prairie, fields with very low vegetation, close-cropped pastures, plowed crop fields, airport runway verges, roadsides, dunes, tundra (both alpine and Arctic), wide-open lake shores, mine reclamation areas, recently burned sites, and deserts.
Region and Range
In North America, the Horned Lark is a spring and summer nester across Alaska and in much of Canada (outside the country's boreal-forest belt), retreating southward in fall. Across much of the lower 48 U.S. states, this bird can be found year-round. One exception: much of the Southeast, where this bird is known mostly as a winter visitor. The Horned Lark also occurs year-round in northern and central Mexico, and there are isolated populations in southern Mexico and central Colombia.
The Horned Lark is a variable species, divided into 42 subspecies worldwide. Twenty-one of these subspecies occur in North America. One of them, the Streaked Horned Lark of the Pacific Northwest, is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservation of the Horned Lark
Working to Reverse a Steep Decline
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The 2016 Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan classifies the Horned Lark as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. Other common birds in similar straits include the Northern Bobwhite, Common Nighthawk, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
In addition to the threat of pesticides used in agricultural fields and other habitats, Horned Larks are frequent victims of collisions, particularly at wind turbines and airports.
American Bird Conservancy works to address the loss of this species' habitat and other threats; for example, we aim to ban or restrict dangerous pesticides, including neonicotinoids, which are known to kill songbirds and their insect prey. After years of lobbying, ABC and partners celebrated the 2022 final decision that banned the agricultural pesticide chlorpyrifos, which is highly toxic to birds.
Policies enacted by the U.S. Congress and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a huge impact on migratory birds. You can help shape these rules for the better by urging lawmakers to prioritize birds, bird habitat, and bird-friendly measures. To get started, visit ABC's Action Center.
Living a bird-friendly life can have an immediate impact on migratory birds in the United States. Doing so can be as easy as adding native plants to your garden, avoiding pesticides, and keeping cats indoors. To learn more, visit our Bird-Friendly Life page.
American Bird Conservancy and our Migratory Bird Joint Venture partners have improved conservation management on more than 8.5 million acres of U.S. bird habitat — an area larger than the state of Maryland — over the last ten years. That's not all: With the help of international partners, we've established a network of more than 100 areas of priority bird habitat across the Americas, helping to ensure that birds' needs are met during all stages of their lifecycles. These are monumental undertakings, requiring the support of many, and you can help by making a gift today.