HORNED LARK – (Eremophila alpestris)
The Horned lark is a bird of the Great North. It measures around 18 cm (7 in.) long and looks pretty much like the bare ground on which it’s foraging – grey-brown for the upper parts. It has a black collar and white under parts. The face and throat are either yellow or white, depending on the subspecies (the ones most likely to be observed in Eastern Canada are Eremophila alpestris alpestris and Eremophila alpestris praticola.). There is a black down-curving black mask, and a black crown ending up with the ‘horns’. The dark grey bill is short and sharp, and the legs and feet are dark grey. The posterior talon is larger than the anterior onesFemales are a washed out version of the males. Juveniles have no black around the head or on the breast, which is light brown. Their back is mottled with white spots.
The Latin genus name ‘Eremophila’ comes from ancient Greek and means ‘to like desert places’, and ‘alpestris’ refers to the Alps, or mountains in general.
There are up to 42 subspecies of this bird, complicating the task of properly identifying sightings, due to the fact that the territories of some of those subspecies are overlapping.
The habitat of the horned lark is almost bare ground, with short and sparse vegetation. They can therefore be found in flocks in the prairies, but also in deserts, on dunes and beaches, plowed fields and cleared ground around airports. The bird feeds on seeds and insects. The nest is a depression on the ground.
The horned lark runs or walks on the ground rather than hopping. When foraging this bird can be found mixed with Snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. The song of the horned lark is often heard early in the day and also in flight. It is faint and musical, consisting of several high-pitch notes in ascending fashion.
The horned lark breeds on PEI and is a year-round resident. Its occurrence however varies from uncommon to common, depending on the years and the seasons. The overall breeding range of this bird species encompasses most of Canada except the boreal forest, and arctic regions around the globe. It is a permanent resident of the southern part of Canada, most of the USA, and parts of Eurasia with bare ground.
Conservation: the numbers of this bird species have declined steadily over the last few decades, and one possible explanation is more intensive agriculture with pesticide use. There is also loss of habitat to urban development. In the western part of its range it is among the birds most often killed by wind turbines.
(The popular music piece ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams, was inspired by a poem with the same title by George Meredith. It is a hymn to the Eurasian skylark (Alauda arvensis) and its song. Although in the same family (Alaudidae) as the Eurasian lark, the Horned lark now belongs to a different genus, although previously it belonged to the same one.)