Bird of the Month - Horned Lark
By Andy McCormick
Scientific name: Eremophila alpestris
Weight 1.1 oz (32 g)
AOU Alpha Code HOLA
A bird of open country, the Horned Lark is more common in Eastern Washington, but a subspecies continues in the Ocean Shores area of Washington.
UNIQUE IN NORTH AMERICA
Is there anyone who does not smile when they hear a lark singing in flight? Their soft tinkling song brings joy to any day. Horned Larks fly high in display flight and then circle while singing, and then fly steeply to the ground. Then repeat. Around the world there are many species of larks, but the Horned Lark is the only one native to North America. And, for our enjoyment they are found almost everywhere on this continent.
The Horned Lark was named “lark of the mountains” by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the father of modern taxonomy. It is classified in the genus Eremophila, meaning desert loving, from the Greek eremos, desert, and philos, loving. Its species name alpestris, belonging to the mountains, is from the Latin Alpes, a form of Alpis, referring to the mountain breeding area. The common name “horned” refers to the ear-like feather tufts on the head. Lark is a contraction of the Middle English name for lark, “lavercock. (Holloway).
GROUND IS HOME
Horned Larks nest on the ground, feed on the ground, run along the ground, and are found on the ground in many different habitats. They prefer open land and avoid areas with trees and even large bushes. They like to move around freely and prefer short grass prairie, extensive lawns such as those at airports and golf courses, beaches, and dry tundra in the far north (Kaufman). They are well-adapted to their environment and the color of their back often matches the color of the soil substrate where they breed (Alderfer). They can vary in color from grayish to brown to dark brown with many intergrades. Video showing foraging behavior, various plumages, and the song of the Horned Lark can be seen at the Macaulay Library.
They nest in a small depression lined with grass, weeds, and some fine plant down. Usually three to four pale grey or greenish white eggs are deposited. The female incubates the eggs for 10-12 days, and both parents feed the young. Even though adult Horned Larks eat seeds, they feed insects to the young, which leave the nest after about a week and a half, but do not fly for another week (Kaufman).
DIVERSITY WITHIN THEIR SPECIES
Horned Larks are found around the world and in North America there are 21 recognized subspecies (Alderfer). In his life history series Arthur Cleveland Bent takes 50 pages to discuss 15 subspecies of Horned Larks (Bent). The ability of Horned Larks to adapt to a variety of environments and habitats – they are as much at home in arctic tundra as they are in a southwestern desert – has contributed to their success and wide distribution. However, they are vulnerable if the local habitat changes, as we have seen in the Puget Sound area.
There are three subspecies of Horned Lark in Washington. The articola is a white-throated Horned Lark found in the Olympics and possibly on Mt. Rainier. East of the Cascades merelli is a darker form seen mostly in intermountain valleys and more arid areas. The form strigata is more yellow on the face and throat and has a streaked chest. It once populated the Puget Trough area. Stigata is now listed as threatened and continues in the Ocean Shores area. Human development is considered the cause of recent population declines in Washington and other western states.
References available upon request from firstname.lastname@example.org.