Horned Larks are hard to spot on a bare, brown field, looking very similar to a clod of dirt. But when they turn their neat little yellow faces, they are immediately visible. Horned Larks are a common sight across North America , singing a high, tinkling song, though they have suffered a sharp disline.
Horned Larks are small, long-bodied songbirds that are usually in a horizontal posture. They have short, thin bills, short necks, and rounded heads—the shape sometimes broken by two small “horns” of feathers sticking up toward the back of the head. Male Horned Larks have sandy to rusty brown upperparts, with a black chest band, a curving black mask, and head stripes that extend to the back of the head (sometimes raised into tiny “horns”). The face and throat are either yellow or white. The underparts are white. Females have similar head and breast patterns but are less crisply defined.
Horned Larks are larger than a Savannah Sparrow but smaller than an Eastern Meadowlark . They have a length of 6.3-7.9 inches (16-20 centimeters) and weigh 1.0-1.7 ounces (28-48 grams) with a wingspan of 11.8-13.4 inches (30-34 centimeters).
Regional DiffrencesHorned Larks vary in color across North America . Some arctic-breeding birds have little or no yellow on the head, while Eastern and south Texas breeders have an extensively yellow head. Those breeding along the Pacific coast tend to be a brighter rufous on the nape, upper back, shoulders, and sides while elsewhere they are a sandier brown.
Horned Larks occur throughout much of North America. They are resident to short-distance migrants. Populations breeding in northern North America move south into Lower 48 for winter while other populations are resident year-round. They migrate during the day in flocks, foraging on the move. Their alpine-breeding populations move to surrounding lowlands in winter.
Horned Larks favor bare, dry ground and areas of short, sparse vegetation, avioding places where grasses grow more than a couple of inches high. They also frequent human cleared ground. In wintertime, flocks of Horned Larks often mix with other birds of open ground. At high altitudes and latitudes, Horned Larks forage on snowfields in the late afternoon, though they mostly feed in areas free of snow.
Horned Larks eat seeds and insects. They feed their nestlings mostly insects, which provide the protein the young birds need to grow. Chicks may also be fed other invertebrates. Horned Larks glean most of their food from the ground, but they sometimes perch on plants to harvest seeds from seed heads. In agricultural fields they may pluck and eat sprouting crop seedlings.
The female Horned Lark selects a nest site on bare ground, apparently with no help from her mate. She either chooses a natural depression to build the nest in or excavates the site herself, which can take a couple of days. To dig a cavity, she uses her bill to loosen the soil and flip it aside, sometimes also kicking dirt out with her feet. Horned Lark’s nests are a basket woven of fine grass or other plant materials and lined with finer material. Two to four days after preparing the site, the female begins weaving her nest. The nest cavity diameter is about 3–4 inches while the inside nest diameter is about 2.5 inches and its depth about 1.5 inches.
Horned Larks have one to three broods per year with 2-5 eggs in each. The eggs are dark pearl gray to pale gray spotted with cinnamon brown or brownish-olive. They have a length of 0.7-1.0 inches (1.8-2.6 entimeters) and a width of 0.5-0.8 inches (1.3-1.9 centimeters). The incubation period is 11-12 days and nesting period is 8-10 days. The hatchlings are helpless and covered in buffy down.
Horned Larks forage in pairs or small groups during breeding season, but form large nomadic flocks in winter, often mixing with other bird species. Horned Larks walk or run over open ground as they search for seeds and insects. Males often sing in flight, probably as part of courtship or territorial defense. During the breeding season, males defend turf against intruding males, and females occasionally repel intruding females. Fighting pairs fly at each other, rising up to 50 feet straight up into the air, pecking and clawing. On the ground, battling males strike at each other with extended wings. As ground nesters, Horned Larks and their eggs and young are vulnerable to predation by birds and by mammals. A nesting female conceals her location by leaving the nest stealthily and flying silently near the ground and is reluctant to return while potential predators lurk nearby. If repeatedly flushed from her nest, she performs a distraction display, fluttering up and landing about a foot away from the nest in a crouched posture with her wings spread, sometimes uttering soft distress calls. If she is followed, she walks rapidly away from the nest before flying. On hot days, foraging individuals follow the shade of tall objects such as power poles and fence posts and the females stand over the nest with wings held away from their bodies to shade eggs and chicks from the sun.
Horned Larks sing a delicate, musical song particularly in the early morning as early as an hour and a half before sunrise. It’s a fast, high-pitched sequence of sharp, tinkling notes, often rising in pitch to a quick jumble of concluding notes. Their songs are typically a couple of seconds long but may go on for more than a minute. The males usually sing from a perch, but may also sing on the wing, from a height of up to about 800 feet in the air.
The Horned Lark’s typical call, most often heard in fall and winter, is a high, piercing one- or two-note chip.
Horned Larks are numerous but their populations have suffered a sharp decline. Loss of agricultural fields to reforestation and development, and human encroachment on the birds’ habitat are factors in their decline, but the overall declining trend is not fully understood.
- Since Horned Larks inhabit an extensive elevation range, from sea level to an altitude of 13,000 feet, Linnaeus named this bird Alauda alpestris, meaning “lark of the mountains” (it has since been moved to the genus Eremophila).
- Female Horned Larks often collect “pavings” which they place beside their nests, covering soil excavated from the nest cavity. The “paved” area resembles a sort of walkway, though the birds don’t seem to use it that way. While nobody fully understands the function of these pavings, they may help prevent collected nesting material from blowing away while the nest is under construction.
- When she is ready to mate, a female Horned Lark performs a courting display that looks very much like she is taking a dust bath. In fact, potential mates seem prone to confusion on this score; a male catching a glimpse of a dust-bathing female may attempt to mate with her.
- The longest-lived Horned Lark on record in North America was a male; at least 7 years and 11 months old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Colorado in 1983, the same state where he had been banded.
- Horned Larks are also called Alondra Cornuda (in Spanish) and Alouette hausse-col (in French).
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