February — Forget the Robin...

by Karen Schik

How about the Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) as a harbinger of spring? These birds return to their breeding grounds in February in Minnesota. Actually, neither robins nor horned larks are particularly good indicators of spring, since small numbers of both species can be found throughout the winter, at least in the lower third of the state. But never mind that – horned larks are just plain cool and we wanted to talk about them. What makes them so cool? Read on!

These hardy little birds – a little larger than a sparrow, but smaller than a robin – can be seen in open countryside in the metro. They flock together over the winter, and can be found with other species such as snow buntings and longspurs. They will soon disperse as breeding season approaches and have been recorded nesting as early as mid-March around here. The nest is made in open ground or very short grassland, and is built into a small depression the birds scrape out. When they sit in the nest they're nearly flush with the ground. Their primary defense on the nest is camouflage, and they have an interesting adaptation for that. The species is philopatric, or faithful to its birthplace, which has allowed local populations to evolve so that their feather coloration is similar to the soil color where they nest, thus increasing their chance of survival. At least 15 distinct subspecies have been identified.

And then there's the song. Of the 75 lark species in the family Alaudidae, the Horned Lark is the only species found in the New World. The Eurasian Skylark is the species famously known for its song. But some would argue that the song of Horned Lark is in no way inferior. Here is what P. L. Hatch (Hatch 1892) had to say about the bird, which he observed in Minneapolis in 1874/ (CAUTION: please sit down, take a deep breath, and prepare to slowly and carefully enjoy the following. I recommend a cup of tea.)

"…a male flitted from the ground about ten to fifteen feet into the air and about thirty yards directly in front of me, simultaneously bursting forth into song. While pouring forth such a volume that it seemed as if he would have instantly burst if he should close his extended mouth, he turned abruptly…and half sailing away...again wheeled with a rapid flutter of his wings that lifted them some thirty feet more, he gyrated back at least a hundred yards, and thus flitting, sailing, singing, he zigzagged right and left, mounting constantly higher and higher…until he disappeared from unaided vision in as clear a sky as ever canopied the green fields in June. Still, the music, fainter and fainter, but if possible sweeter and sweeter, was distinctly audible…when, his song suddenly ceased and he closed his wings as a diver lays down his arms to his sides and head straight downward, descended with the velocity of a spent bullet, until within a single yard of the ground, and no more than that distance from the identical spot he had left, he opened those wings and touched the grass as lightly as a snowflake unannoyed by the winds."

But wait, there’s more – and this is the best part:

"The song cannot be expressed by any similation of words or syllables, but is totally unlike any other amongst the songbirds. With such a possibility within the reach of any song-loving mortal, who would spend the last dime to hear a Nilsson (music of the day), and would not go a mile in the open, silent prairie to hear this peerless skylark? …Heaven’s richest boon to aesthetic man are oftenest overlooked or underheard. Awake, dear sleepers!"

Whew! I guess you’ll have to be the judge on that one – listen to the song at the link below. A few more details you should know: In addition to the darling black feather tufts that resemble horns, distinctive features of the species are that they walk, rather than hop, on the ground, and the back toe has a very long claw, presumably helpful for walking on soft ground.

You still want more? The genus Eremophila – comes from the Greek "eremos," meaning desert, lonely places, and "phileo," meaning to love, in reference to the preferred habitat of many species. That's it. If you want more, check one of the references below. One place to see Horned Larks in the summer is at the Hastings Sand Coulee SNA.

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