Horned Lark


(This 1085th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 8, 2012.)


Horned Lark Painting by Allen Brooks


We all have our favorites in the animal kingdom. I can, for example, imagine no more attractive non-human mammal than a flying squirrel. Birders too have their favorites. Some like colorful birds like scarlet tanagers or bluebirds; others, majestic birds like the bald eagle or osprey; still others, delicate birds like hummingbirds.


One of my favorite birds I doubt would make the list of many of my fellow birders. It isn't colorful, it isn't majestic, and it certainly cannot match any of the hummingbirds for delicacy. It is the horned lark.


I was reminded of my preference for this species when we saw a number of them along Ledge Road on the Oak Orchard Christmas Bird Count December 28. Across the now open cornfields around us the wind was whistling, blowing snow swirls into the air to add to the new snow finally falling in this so long delayed winter.


There were a dozen or so of these sparrow-sized birds braving the weather to feed among the sheared off corn stalks and occasionally flying up to the road itself to pick up the fine gravel necessary to their digestion. (Birds are, of course, toothless and in their gizzard the grit grinds otherwise indigestible food into fine particles to be processed.)


Unless you look at them closely, you won't be able to distinguish horned larks from sparrows. They have brown streaked backs and plain bellies. Only some intricate markings around the head are different. There is a black killdeer-like band across the throat, a black cheek mark that looks to me like a teardrop and a thin black line above the eye. There is some light color on the face as well, an eye stripe that circles down and around the back of that teardrop.


You have to look still more closely to see their so-called horns: tiny feather tufts that rise from the back of that black eyeline. It has always seemed to me that using the word horned for these nearly invisible tufts is wrong. Horns are big rough features on cows and rhinos. These eighth-inch feathers don't deserve that designation. How much better is the name for this species' European relative, the sky lark, which has now been established in a few areas along our and Canada's far west.


It is almost impossible to see those small colorful features when the birds are flying, but birders can identify horned larks in flight by a particular characteristic: they don't usually flap and sail with wings always spread; instead, between each flap they completely close their wings to their bodies before flapping again.


Unlike so many of our songbirds, some of these horned larks are permanent residents here; that is, they not only breed here but they also spend their winters with us. As the winter deepens they will be joined in these fields by birds retreating from the far north including not only other horned larks but snow buntings and Lapland longspurs as well.


There is a similarity between the nesting behavior of those northern birds and the larks that stay with us. The buntings, longspurs and some of these larks will leave to fly so far north that they will nest near melting snow in late May and even June. But the horned larks that stay will nest here much earlier when we too have snow on the ground. They are our earliest nesting songbirds with eggs often laid in March. You can imagine the additional stress this places on the adults of all these species, caring for their eggs and young through sub-freezing times.


Do our horned larks build sturdy nests to protect their young? Hardly. They build no nest at all and even prefer to lay their three or four egg clutches on patches of flat open ground. It seems as though they seek out the worst possible conditions for nesting.


But what I find best about these hardy little birds is their lovely song, a kind of tinkling that we will begin to hear in mid-February as they initiate their courtship. The sound has none of the strident quality of sleigh bells; rather, it is the sound of tiny wind chimes in a soft breeze.-- Gerry Rising