Bird Lore: Horned Lark

Larks are songbirds that live on the ground in open country. There are about 80 species of larks in Eurasia and Africa, but only the Horned Lark spills over into the Americas. The Horned Lark is a permanent resident of the Lower 48 with the exception of coastal areas of the Southeast. It is a permanent resident of Eastern Washington that shows up in very small numbers in Western Washington, usually in migration.

The first photo is of the most recent Horned Lark seen in Edmonds. It was on the jetty at Brackett’s Landing North in September 2013, a time that coincides with migration from northern breeding grounds. The shoreline would be the most productive area for finding a Horned Lark in the city.

The Horned Lark’s habitat included prairies, both plowed and stubble fields, airports and golf courses, shores, and tundra. It prefers open ground, avoiding areas with trees and brush. It can be easier to spot on snow-covered ground in winter and many go looking for it when snow comes to the Waterville Plateau of Douglas County. For Western Washington, a tiny year-round population favors the sand dunes along the Columbia River at the Port of Kalama in Cowlitz County, just off I-5.

Diet is made up of seeds and insects. Seeds come from a variety of grasses and weeds as well as waste grains. In summer insects make up about half of the Horned Lark’s diet. It forages by walking and running on the ground, picking up items as it moves along. Except in nesting season, the Horned Lark usually forages in flocks, anywhere from 10-20 birds to hundreds.

Breeding begins quite early in spring. The male defends his territory by singing, either from the ground or in flight. He will fly up steeply and silently for several hundred feet. Then he will hover and circle for several minutes, singing all the while. He finishes the display by diving steeply toward the ground. The female signals her readiness to mate by performing a courtship display that looks like she is taking a dust bath. It is apparently confusing as some males will attempt to mate with a female that is actually taking a dust bath. Eventually it all gets sorted out and a pair is ready to nest.

The nest site is on open ground, often near a clump of grass, a piece of dried cow manure or other such object. The female builds the nest, which is a slight depression lined with grass, weeds and rootlets. The nest has an inner lining of plant down or fine grass. A curious aspect of the nest is a “paved” area. The female will gather pebbles, clods, corncobs, and dung to cover the area of soil excavated for the nest. It looks like a walkway but its function is not understood. She incubates her three to four eggs for 10-12 days. Both adults feed the hatchlings. The young may leave the nest after 9-12 days but it is another week before they are able to fly.

The oldest known Horned Lark was a male at least 7 years and 11 months of age when he was recaptured in a banding operation in Colorado in 1983. There are several collective nouns for groups of all larks: ascension, chattering, exaltation, happiness, and the archaic word springul.

You can watch a male Horned Lark singing from a post in this two minute YouTube video:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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