Horned Larks

By Kate Crowley Photos by Mike Link
I hate to admit it, but we are bored with our birds; not the daily activity, but the lack of variety.  So far this winter, the largest number of species we have seen is eleven and more commonly it has been eight and we are desperate for some variety!  Not having the resources to escape to some hot, tropical location where we might see 25 or 30 different kinds of birds in one day, we did the next best thing.  We drove 215 miles south to Lanesboro, Minnesota.  The landscape looked much the same there as up here, except for huge snowbanks alongside the roads.  The rolling hills have few trees to hold the snow when it starts to blow and the roads have been covered with deep drifts.  Even so, the countryside looked like a Currier and Ives painting, with neat farmsteads tucked into folds in the hills and gnarly branched oak trees scattered about. 
Our friends live on a bluff above the Root River and Joe had been bemoaning the lack of birds at his feeders this winter, so we were expecting a dismal scene when we arrived for breakfast on Sunday morning.  We could hear and see birds flying around their feeders as we walked towards the house and when Joe led us to the expansive front windows where the action was taking place, we had to wonder out loud, “This is what you call no birds?” 
It was a whirlwind of activity around the two hanging feeders and the heated birdbath.  There were the familiar (to us) chickadees, hairy and downy woodpeckers, blue jays, white breasted nuthatches and juncos, but in addition there were purple finches, house finches, pine siskins, goldfinches, a tufted titmouse, a red-bellied woodpecker and a tree sparrow!  In the distance we watched a pileated woodpecker and Joe mentioned there had been a northern shrike hunting nearby.  We felt like paupers confronted with this wealth of bird life.  But it was the boost we needed as we enter the fifth month of winter and know that we are weeks away from an increase of species at our house.
There was another bird that we saw as we drove up the snow covered road to their house – horned larks.  I always expect to see these small sparrow sized birds at this time of year in southern Minnesota.  They actually live year round in that part of the state, but somehow they seem like harbingers of spring, unlikely as it looks right now.  Like flocks of snow buntings which they sometimes travel with, they are most often seen along the edge of gravel roads where they eat waste seeds.  As a car approaches they lift up and swirl away, only to land again once you’ve passed by.   
These sparrow sized (7 ½ inches) birds have brownish backs, white bellies and breasts and a black splotch across their chest. Their most interesting features though are found on their head.  They  have a broad black ‘moustache’, yellow feathers just below and above the beak, and  two small black feather ‘horns’ above and behind each eye. 
These little birds are either going to be found on the ground or in the air.  They do not perch in trees or any other forms of vegetation.  In the winter months, they will settle down to roost in the snow, often times burying themselves for warmth, as the ruffed grouse does and or let the snow cover them in a storm.
Poems have been written about the Sky Lark of Europe, because of the beautiful trilling song it sings when the male does his sky courtship display.  The male horned lark performs a similar song display, although with a less elaborate aria.  When defending his nesting territory or attempting to attract a mate, the male flies upwards to heights of 800 feet, where he then hovers or flies in a circle singing a ‘tinkling’ song.  When that is complete, he tucks his wings in and drops headfirst towards the ground, only to pull up at the last moment before landing. 
It is at this time of year that the males begin to display and not long after that the pair starts a new family, but I cannot imagine how that can happen this year, because they need some exposed ground to build their nest.  Even with the wind blowing across the hilltops, it is too deep to expose any fields.  It was only because of the road grader that the birds were able to find some gravel edge to search for seeds, though it was hard to imagine there being many at this point in time.  They may be visiting feedlots and farmyards where they can find spilled grain.  In the summer months they include a vast variety of insects in their diet.  
We have seen horned larks in this part of the state, but it is usually later March or April and these birds may be on their way to Canada to nest in the tundra regions where there are few trees.   For the ones who do nest here, they must find a field where there is a clod of dirt or leftover manure that provides a tiny bit of shelter for their nest.  In winter corn fields, if the stalks are exposed, they will pry cutworms out of the stalk.
As we left our friends house, we spotted one lone little lark on the edge of the road.  It was -11F and the bird was puffed up so much that you couldn’t see its feet except when it shuffled ahead.  Its ‘horns’ were pressed flat against its head and it was so intent on searching for some sustenance that it didn’t even care that our car was so close.  Survival was its only concern.  When it did finally fly up, it showed the distinctive dark tail, which is a key feature of identification when they move too fast to see other features.  We watched it disappear into the blazing white snowscape.


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