A cloudy, blustery, cold December day at the foot of the Colorado Rockies and the three of us were doing the Christmas Bird Count. As my husband drove slowly, our friend sat in the front seat scouring the landscape for likely places to check for birds. Opposite a stubble-covered farm field, he hollered, “STOP!” “Seriously? Here?” I thought. We hopped out of the car and stared at the field. Suddenly, the ground seemed to be crawling with browns pots. Scores and scores of Horned Larks!
How did he know? Psychic? Horned Lark whisperer? No, he just knew what Horned Larks like. Living primarily in open, barren country, Horned Larks prefer areas with a lot of bare ground and vegetation only a few inches high. The barer the ground, the more Horned Larks like it. Hence, the stubble-strewn crop field. When flushed, a low-flying flock flows in a ground-hugging sheet. They breed in a variety of these drab, harsh areas, from deserts to alpine habitats. (Horned Lark is one of only four species that breed above tree line. For those keeping score, the other three are Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, American Pipit, and Rock Wren.)This range of breeding preferences is perfectly reflected in their scientific name: Eremophila (from Greek for “desert-loving”) alpestris(from Latin for “belonging to the mountains”).
A Horned Lark resembles a large, grayish brown sparrow with a rakish facial pattern, a somewhat flattened and ovular body (as if the bird has been slightly stepped on), and a long tail. The “horns”—actually feather tufts on the top of its head—can be raised or lowered. The adult male can be readily identified by its black face mask and broad black “necklace;” in some areas, the throat is a bit yellow, just to add a splash of color. The female has a similar pattern, but the colors and contrasts are duller and she rarely raises her feathery “horns.” Except when alert, its posture is generally horizontal and crouched. Flushed birds often fly low and land nearby, or they may climb, circle, and return.
The Horned Lark’s patchy distribution in San Diego County shows the fragmentation of its preferred habitat here. The coastal strand, arid grasslands, and sandy desert floors are home to the Horned Lark here year-round. The San Diego County Bird Atlas reported that one of these habitats is the coastal strand, including salt flats around the coastal lagoons. Other populations centers include Warner Valley (e.g., Lake Henshaw), Lake Cuyamaca, and dry lake beds in the Anza–Borrego Desert.
Roughly between April and June, Horned Larks nest on the ground, digging or selecting a small hollow so the nest is sunken slightly below ground level. Often a small plant, a clump of grass, or a rock shelters the nest on one side. Clutches average three eggs, although on average only one young fledges per nest. Predation by birds (e.g., scrub-jays, crows) and mammals (including deer mice, weasels, skunks, and raccoons)is the main cause of their not-infrequent nest failures. (Luckily, Horned Larks can raise a second brood in a season.) Only females incubate the clutch but males share in feeding the young. As with other ground-nesting birds, the young leave the nest early—about 10 days after hatching, when they can walk but before they can fly well. After fledging, the kids flutter and hop along the ground. Their major defense at that time is blending in with the bare ground and sparse grasses. A few days later, the young can fly a few yards, just barely off the ground. About a month after hatching, they can fly with the best of ‘em. Adults continue to provide the young larks with food for two to three weeks.
Horned Larks are famous for their flight songs, delivered high in the air during a floating, fluttering display flight. The song is an ethereal and somewhat ventriloqual tiny-bell-like jingle. Two or three breathy chirps are followed by a compressed string of clear, high-pitched notes that climb the scale as they accelerate. This singing in flight presumably arose as a way to defend a territory in open habitats with no elevated perches. Indeed, their musical, tinkling songs ring out unhindered—a lovely contrast to their rather desolate surroundings.
The Horned Lark is the only true lark in the U.S. Although you might think that Western Meadowlarks are larks too, they are really more closely related to blackbirds and grackles (all members of the Icterid family). From breeding in scrapes on bare ground to gorgeous territorial song-filled flights, Horned Larks are truly birds of both the earth and the sky.