Horned Lark Life History

Habitat

Habitat GrasslandsHorned 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.Back to top

Food

Food SeedsHorned 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. Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest GroundThe 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.

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:2-5 eggs
Number of Broods:1-3 broods
Egg Length:0.7-1.0 in (1.8-2.6 cm)
Egg Width:0.5-0.8 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.
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Behavior

Behavior Ground ForagerHorned 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 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—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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Common Bird in Steep DeclineHorned Larks are numerous but their populations declined by over 2% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 71%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 120 million, with 62% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 17% in Canada, and 9% wintering in Mexico. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Horned Lark is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, but the 2014 State of the Birds Report listed it as a Common Bird in Steep 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. Back to top

Credits

Beason, Robert C. 1995. Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Committee, Partners in Flight Science. Species assessment database, version 2012 2012 [cited 11 March 2016. Available from http://rmbo.org/pifassessment.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon and W. A. Link. The North American breeding bird survey, results and analysis 1966-2015 (Version 2.07.2017). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center 2017.

Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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