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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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Keys to identification Help

Sparrowlike
Sparrowlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Horned Larks are small, long-bodied songbirds that usually adopt 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.

  • Color Pattern

    Male Horned Larks are sandy to rusty brown above, 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 (see Regional Differences). The underparts are white. Females have similar head and breast patterns but are less crisply defined.

  • Behavior

    Horned Larks are social birds, sometimes found in huge flocks outside the breeding season. They creep along bare ground searching for small seeds and insects. They often mix with other open-country species in winter flocks, including longspurs and Snow Buntings.

  • Habitat

    The barer the ground, the more Horned Larks like it. Look for them in open country with very short or no vegetation, including bare agricultural fields. They breed in short grassland, short-stature sage shrubland, desert, and even alpine and arctic tundra.

Range Map Help

Horned Lark Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Horned Lark

    Adult male
    • Medium-size, long-winged songbird
    • Short, stubby bill
    • Yellow face with black mask and "mustache" and black band at base of throat
    • Black "horns" raised above crown by breeding males
    • © Ken Schneider, Kane County, Illinois, March 2010
  • Adult female

    Horned Lark

    Adult female
    • Small, slender songbird with long, pointed wings
    • Stubby bill
    • Pale, sandy brown above, whitish below
    • Faint yellow wash on face and black band on upper breast
    • © Jim Farley, Camp Pendleton, California, June 2011
  • Adult male

    Horned Lark

    Adult male
    • Medium size, stocky, long-winged songbird
    • Short, stubby bill
    • Yellow and black facial pattern more muted in winter
    • Black band at base of throat contrasts with pale white underparts
    • © Cameron Rognan, Ovid, New York, January 2009
  • Adult female

    Horned Lark

    Adult female
    • Small, stocky songbird
    • Female shows pale yellow wash on face and faint streaks on breast
    • Pale brown above with faint black collar at base of throat
    • Short, stout gray bill
    • © Ian Davies, Hadley, Massachusetts, February 2011
  • Adult male

    Horned Lark

    Adult male
    • Long-winged and stocky with squared-off tail
    • Pale brown above, white below
    • Black mask and "mustache" on pale yellow face
    • Black band at base of throat
    • © Jim Paris, Arrowhead Road, Northhampton County, Pennsylvania, March 2009
  • Adult female

    Horned Lark

    Adult female
    • Small songbird with short, stubby bill
    • Patterned in pale brown above
    • Long wings
    • Pale yellowish wash on face with black collar around upper breast
    • © Tim Lenz, Seneca Falls Fairgrounds, New York, April 2010
  • Adult male

    Horned Lark

    Adult male
    • Stocky, long-winged songbird
    • Square-off tail
    • Pale brown above
    • Golden face with black mask and "mustache" and black band on upper breast
    • © Kurt Hasselman, Alpha, New Jersey, February 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult

    American Pipit

    Adult
    • Similar to Horned Lark but more slender, with longer tail
    • Longer, thinner, pointed bill
    • Dark streaks on underparts
    • Contrasting white throat
    • © Dave Wendelken, Silver Lake, Rockingham County, Virginia, February 2010
  • Adult

    Smith's Longspur

    Adult
    • Stockier than Horned Lark and darker and more patterned overall
    • Buffy wash on breast and belly
    • Dark crown
    • © Andy Johnson, Twin Lakes Rd, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, July 2011

Similar Species

Lapland Longspur, Chestnut-collared Longspur, McCown’s Longspur, and Smith’s Longspur can often be found with flocks of Horned Lark, but they are all smaller and chunkier, with thicker, more sparrowlike bills. Chestnut-collared Longspur and McCown’s Longspur both show much more white in the tail than does Horned Lark. Sprague’s Pipit and American Pipit are streakier than adult Horned Lark. They have much shorter wings, with the wingtips reaching just the base of the tail, where Horned Lark’s wingtips extend halfway down the tail. Neither pipit has the strong face markings of adult Horned Lark; however, juvenile Horned Lark also lack face markings. Pipits are plain (American Pipit) or streaked (Sprague’s Pipit) on the back, whereas juvenile Horned Lark are spotted on the back.

Regional Differences

Horned 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 the head extensively yellow. Those breeding along the Pacific coast tend to be a brighter rufous on the nape, upper back, shoulders, and sides; elsewhere they are a sandier brown.

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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