Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Horned Larks

 

Charles Helm and Susan Post

 

What creature builds its home on prairies, golf courses, sandy shores, or near airports, can survive in the Arctic tundra as well as the deserts of the southwest, and is as much at home at high altitudes as at sea level?  If you answered, “humans and Horned Larks,” you are correct.

Like humans, the hardy Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) is a year-round resident of Illinois.  In the autumn and winter,  flocks of Horned Larks often gather in harvested fields and along country roadsides to glean spilled grain and weedseeds. Blending well with their background, a flock communally feeding on such a roadside treat may temporarily scurry further to the side or simply crouch quietly if annoyed by a passing car. But when truly alarmed by a predator or the occasional human interloper, the entire group takes off in a low undulating pattern, voicing a few faint tinkling calls as they flit from harm’s way.

Without doubt, the birds' most distinctive features are the two erect feathers on their heads, which from a distance resemble horns—hence their common name.  Their faces and throats are yellowish-white with  black chest bands, black masks, and black forehead bands highlighting the horns.  Otherwise, Horned Larks are rather inconspicuous—a little smaller than a robin with plumage that varies considerably throughout their range.

Horned Larks are one of the earliest nesters of Illinois resident birds.  They often build their nests in February and it is not unusual for their first clutches of eggs to be destroyed by a late winter or early spring storm.  Fortunately, these birds are persistent breeders that can hatch two, three, and even four broods in a single season.  The Horned Lark nest is built in a hollow in the ground and is lined with fine grass.  These birds often pave the area next to one side of the nest with small flat stones upon which they can stand—a kind of avian patio.  Horned Larks lay three to five grayish white eggs almost uniformly covered with brown spots—an ideal camouflage.  Eggs are incubated for 11 to 14 days by both parents.  The Horned Lark is unusual in that it prefers barren areas with short grass for its nesting sites. This may be one reason it breeds so early in the year—so it can hatch and raise its young before the grass around the nest becomes too high.

So, if you are like the Horned Lark and prefer wide open spaces any season of year, then winter is a perfect time to get to know these feathered neighbors.  Flocks of up to a 100 are easy to spot in harvested fields and barren stretches of land.  Listen for their unusual, high-pitched tinkling song, and if you’re observant you’ll see their telltale horns too.  Horned Larks may not have the flash of a cardinal or the raucous call of the blue jay, but they definitely add a welcome bit of life and fun to our, otherwise austere, winter landscapes.

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