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Larks: Alaudidae - Horned Lark (eremophila Alpestris): Species Accounts

north black accessed song

Physical characteristics: The horned lark gets its name from the tiny, protruding black feathers on each side of its head, which give the bird a horned appearance. The birds have a softly tawny color on their backs, while their underparts are lighter. They have black bibs, broad black stripes under the eye, and a buttery-yellow or white throat. Tails are mostly black with white outer feathers. Females' "horns" are less apparent and their plumage is more muted overall. Horned larks are generally 5.9 to 6.7 inches (15 to 17 centimeters) long. Males weigh from 1.1 to 1.7 ounces (30 to 48 grams) and females weigh 0.9 to 1.5 ounces (26 to 42 ounces). Wingspan ranges from 12.25 to 14 inches (31 to 35.5 centimeters).


Geographic range: The only member of the lark family native to North America, horned larks nest from Alaska and Canada down to West Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, coastal Texas, and Kansas, wintering along the Gulf Coast. It also appears throughout northern and southern Europe, where it winters around the North Sea, and in northern and southern Asia. Sightings have also been reported in Morocco, Colombia, Lebanon, and northern Israel.


Habitat: Horned larks prefer to live in large fields and open areas of grassland (including those at airports and in farmland), but also occupy habitats such as arctic tundra and shoreline beaches.

The horned lark gets its name from the tiny black feathers on each side of its head, which look like horns. This is the only lark native to North America. (Illustration by Emily Damstra. Reproduced by permission.)

Diet: Horned larks eat mainly insects (especially wasps, ants, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and spiders) during the mating season, but concentrate on seeds in wintertime.


Behavior and reproduction: During its song-display, the male horned lark ascends without singing to heights of 300 to 800 feet (91 to 244 meters), where it begins to circle and sing a high-pitched, tinkling song. When it completes the song, the bird closes it wings and drops headfirst, opening its wings and pulling out of the dive at the last possible second. The male also perches on fence posts, rocks, or bushes to sing its mating song. Horned larks are monogamous for at least one mating season (March through July) and prefer to make their cup-shaped nests on the ground in barren, sandy, or stony areas. Females often surround the nest with a ring of pebbles and line it with down, fine grass, and hair. They commonly lay three to five smooth, glossy, pale greenish white and brown-speckled eggs in a clutch at a rate of one per day. Females begin incubating the eggs once the entire clutch has been laid, sitting on the nest for ten to fourteen days. Nestlings, who receive care from both parents, have brown skin and long, whitish down. They typically leave the nest after nine to twelve days.

The horned lark is particularly known for its preference for walking sedately to travel small distances instead of the more usual hopping, and may often be heard singing its characteristic "tsee-ee" song from any slight elevation. Birders generally regard the species as tough and intrepid because of its tolerance of seemingly inhospitable climates and conditions.

Horned larks and people: The horned lark's jaunty appearance makes it a favorite among birdwatchers.


Conservation status: This species is not officially threatened, although its habitat in a number of areas is jeopardized by development and reforestation of grasslands. As a ground-nester, the horned lark is also heavily preyed upon by cats, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, and other predators. ∎


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Books:

Erlich, P., et al. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Keith, S., et al., eds. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 4. London: Academic Press, 1992.

Sibley, Charles G., and Burt L. Monroe. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.


Web sites:

"Australasian Lark." Avibase: The World Bird Database. http://www.bsc-eoc.org/avibase.jsp?pg=summary&lang=EN (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"Hoopoe-Lark." Birding Israel. http://www.birding-israel.com/bird/News/inFocus/hoopoeLark/ (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"An Animal of the High Desert: The Horned Lark." Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory: Environmental Surveillance, Education, and Research Program. http://www.stoller-eser.com/hornedlark.htm (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"Horned Lark Fact Sheet." State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. http://dep.state.ct.us/burnatr/wildlife/factshts/hlark.htm (accessed on May 17, 2004).

"Lark." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaudidae (accessed on May 17, 2004).

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