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 Sprague's Pipit, the Horned Lark banks steeply and silently into the sky, ascending hundreds of feet above open fields. He fills the sky with a tinkling cascade of notes before plunging toward the ground in pursuit of the female's attention.
The namesake “horns” of the Horned Lark are actually visible only at close range. Male birds sport these little tufts of black feathers during the breeding season, at times raising or lowering them expressively.
Although still considered a common species, Horned Lark numbers declined by 65 percent between 1970 and 2014. We at American Bird Conservancy are working to address loss of this species' habitat and other threats; for example, we aim to ban or restrict pesticides, including chlorpyrifos and neonicotinoids, that are known to kill songbirds.
Desert Lover of High Mountains
Horned Lark is the only native lark found in North America, although it's also found in northern areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its scientific name, Eremophila alpestris, translates to "desert lover of the high mountains." The appellation refers to the bird's preferred breeding habitats in Eurasia: open grasslands and similar places above the tree line.
The Horned Lark is a variable species, divided into 42 subspecies worldwide. Twenty-one of these subspecies are found in North America alone. One of these, the Streaked Horned Lark of the Pacific Northwest, was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2013. We hope this important step isn't happening too late for the 2,000 or fewer individuals remaining.
Bird of the Bare Ground
Horned Larks prefer habitats with bare ground or very short vegetation. They forage on the ground year-round, walking or running in erratic patterns as they glean seeds and pursue small insects.
Secretive birds, Horned Larks can be difficult to spot. It's easier to see them in winter when snow covers the ground. The birds stand out against the white backdrop, often in flocks with Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. They can be seen foraging along roadsides, in feedlots, and in fields where manure and waste grain are spread, especially when snow cover is heavy.
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The Horned Lark sings its sweet, tinkling song on the wing, but the birds more commonly sing from a perch to defend territory. The high, tumbling flight song functions in display and courtship. One- and two-noted calls have a characteristic sweet quality and are most often heard in fall and winter.
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.
Working to Reverse a Steep Decline
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 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. We at American Bird Conservancy advocate for Bird-Smart wind energy development, which includes siting turbines well away from sensitive habitats. We work to assess and advise on potential impacts of proposed projects, raising concerns in places like the Great Lakes that are vital for migratory birds.
In the Pacific Northwest, ABC staff serve on the Streaked Horned Lark Recovery Team. We're also providing funding to a Lark Conservation Specialist who will work with private landowners to promote bird-friendly practices.
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