Horned Lark: resident of the open country

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

In early March, while visiting Fort Rose Maple Company, I spied a horned lark from my perch on the hay wagon. It was skittering across the expanse of diamond-crusted snow, and at first glance the bird’s black collar suggested it might be a meadowlark. This idea was quickly dismissed when I realized it was sparrow-sized; too small for the meadowlark, which isn’t even a lark. Editor Casey Lessard had recently mentioned some sightings of horned larks in the Grand Bend area, and so this species has become the topic of the April column.

The horned lark (Eremophila alpestris) is one of the most widespread birds in North America. It is a brown ground bird, seven to eight inches in length, with black sideburns and two small black horns on the top of its head. These, of course, are feathered tufts and only resemble horns. It sports a black bill, black bib, and pale yellow to white throat. The back and rump are tawny brown, and the tail is black with white outer feathers. All features combine to create a most handsome appearance. The female appears similar but is duller and lacks the black crown. The white underparts of both genders are noticeable in flight. The feet are black and the rear toe is quite elongated.
The horned lark forages on the ground, preferring open fields, golf courses, prairies, and tundra, etc. They sometimes group with snow buntings on graveled shoulders of the roadside. The lark walks and runs, as opposed to hopping, and is often found in agricultural areas.
Food mainly consists of seeds, grains, insects and small mollusks. The song of the horned lark, given from high circling flight, is a series of bell-like tones (tsee-tete, or zeet).
The nest is a shallow depression in a grassy meadow, either natural, or dug by the female and lined with feathers and other soft materials, and is often near clumps of dirt or animal manure. The female lays two to five gray or greenish eggs dotted with brown. The young stay in the nest nine to 12 days, brooded by the female and fed by both sexes. These young are classed as altricial, which means they are born naked and helpless, like most of our songbirds. This contrasts with another ground nester, the killdeer, whose young are precocial; this means baby killdeer are born fully feathered and ready to run off within a few hours.
The population of the horned lark is common and the eastern range has expanded because of agricultural development. Keep your eyes sharp for the black collar and the little black horns of this most attractive songbird in our area.
Recent Sightings:
– A bald eagle (just north of Ailsa Craig)
– Red-bellied woodpecker (both at the feeder and on roadside trees)