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Horned Lark

Eremophila alpestris ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: ALAUDIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Look carefully at a bare, brown field, especially in winter, and you may be surprised to see it crawling with little brown shapes. When they turn, you may see a neat yellow face, black mask, and tiny black “horns” waving in the breeze. Horned Larks are widespread songbirds of fields, deserts, and tundra, where they forage for seeds and insects, and sing a high, tinkling song. Though they are still common, they have undergone a sharp decline in the last half-century.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.3–7.9 in
16–20 cm
Wingspan
11.8–13.4 in
30–34 cm
Weight
1–1.7 oz
28–48 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Savannah Sparrow; smaller than an Eastern Meadowlark.
Other Names
  • Shore Lark (British)
  • Alouette hausse-col, L'Alouette cornue, Alouette bilophe (French)
  • Alondra cornuda (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Horned Larks inhabit an extensive elevation range, from sea level to an altitude of 13,000 feet. Linnaeus named this bird Alauda alpestris: “lark of the mountains” (it has since been moved to the genus Eremophila).
  • Female Horned Larks often collect “pavings”—pebbles, clods, corncobs, dung—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 as if 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 at least 7 years, 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Colorado.

Habitat


Grassland

Horned Larks favor bare, dry ground and areas of short, sparse vegetation; they avoid places where grasses grow more than a couple of inches high. Common habitats include prairies, deserts, tundra, beaches, dunes, and heavily grazed pastures. Horned Larks also frequent areas cleared by humans, such as plowed fields and mowed expanses around airstrips. In wintertime, flocks of Horned Larks, often mixing with other birds of open ground, can be seen along roadsides, in feedlots, and on fields spread with waste grain and manure. At high altitudes and latitudes, Horned Larks forage on snowfields in the late afternoon, though they mostly feed in areas free of snow.

Food


Seeds

Horned Larks eat seeds and insects. They feed their nestlings mostly insects, which provide the protein the young birds need to grow. Insect prey are mainly grasshoppers, beetles, and caterpillars. Chicks may also be fed invertebrates such as sowbugs and earthworms. 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 lettuce, wheat, and other crop seedlings.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.7–1 in
1.8–2.6 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.7 in
1.3–1.9 cm
Incubation Period
11–12 days
Nestling Period
8–10 days
Egg Description
Dark pearl gray to pale gray spotted with cinnamon brown or brownish-olive.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, covered in buffy down.
Nest Description

The Horned Lark’s nest is a basket woven of fine grass or other plant materials and lined with finer material. Two to four days after preparing the site, she begins weaving her nest from grass, small roots, shredded cornstalks, and other plant material, then lines it with down, fur, feathers, fine rootlets, even lint and string. The nest cavity diameter is about 3–4 inches; the inside nest diameter is about 2.5 inches and its depth about 1.5 inches.

Nest Placement

Ground

The female Horned Lark selects a nest site on bare ground, apparently with no help from her mate. She either chooses a natural depression in which to build the nest or excavates the site herself, a process that can take a couple of days. To dig a cavity, she uses her bill to loosen soil and flip it aside, sometimes also kicking dirt out with her feet.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Horned Larks forage in pairs or small groups during breeding season, but form large nomadic flocks in winter—often mixing with other bird species, including Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings. 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 & 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—including meadow voles, shrews, deer mice, weasels, skunks, and raccoons. A nesting female conceals her location by leaving the nest stealthily and flying silently near the ground; she 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 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; females stand over the nest with wings held away from their bodies to shade eggs and chicks from the sun.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Horned Larks are numerous but their populations declined by an estimated 2.2 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 62 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 120 million, with 17 percent breeding in Canada, 62 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., and 9 percent in Mexico. The 2014 State of the Birds Report listed them as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, and they rate a 9 out of 20 on the Partners in Flight Continental Concern Score. Loss of agricultural fields to reforestation and development, and human encroachment on the birds’ habitat, are factors in their decline—but the overall trend is not fully understood.

Credits

Range Map Help

Horned Lark Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to short-distance migrant. Populations breeding in northern North America move south into Lower 48 for winter; other populations are resident year-round. Migrates by day in flocks, foraging on the move. Alpine-breeding populations move to surrounding lowlands in winter.

Find This Bird

Horned Larks are small birds that live in large, empty fields—and they’re roughly the same color and size as a clod of dirt. To find them, look for the barest ground around and scan the ground carefully, watching for movement or for the birds to turn their black-and-yellow faces toward you. Also watch the air above open country for flocks of smaller birds flying in dense aggregations (sometimes numbering well into the hundreds, particularly in winter). From late winter into summer, listen for the high-pitched, thin, tinkling song, often given in flight display over suitable open habitats.

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