Their preference for sparsely vegetated areas of grassland habitat has linked horned larks to prairie dog conservation in several western states. Studies have shown horned larks like the short-grass/bare ground mix prevalent at sites where prairie dog towns are found. Horned larks are one of several bird species whose numbers have shown a decrease when prairie dogs disappear from an area.
Species: Horned lark
Scientific name: Eremophila alpestris
Nicknames: Shore lark
Claim to fame: In birding circles, horned larks are known as North America’s only “true” larks. (Meadowlarks are closely related to blackbirds and grackles and are not taxonomically classified as larks.) Horned larks’ love of open areas has made them one of several bird species that are symbols of vanishing grassland habitat in Missouri and elsewhere.
Species status: Because of human-induced changes that have occurred and, in some cases, are still occurring; horned lark numbers are thought to be declining in Missouri and many other areas of their range.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the horned lark was written by the famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758.
Family matters: Horned larks belong to the bird family Alaudidae, a group of species commonly called the larks. More than 70 species of larks can be found in the world, but the horned lark is only one that resides in North America.
Length: Seven to eight inches
Diet: Horned larks are omnivorous. They feed on spiders, ants, grasshoppers, wasps and a variety of insects. They also eat fruits, berries and the seeds of some plants.
Weight: Around 30 grams
Distinguishing characteristics: The most distinguishing physical characteristic of a horned lark is the pair of black feather tufts on its head – which is the reason for the bird’s name. The face is usually white or pale yellow with a black stripe that starts at the bill, runs through the eye and down each side of the head. (In breeding males, the yellow is often brighter and the black striping is bolder.) The breast is white with a black patch on the upper portion. The body is brown and the tail is black. Its song is a series of high, somewhat musical tinkling notes. It also has a single-syllable or double-syllabled “weet” or “suweet.” Unlike most other songbirds of its size, horned larks do not hop about on the ground; they walk.
Life span: Information not available
Habitat: Though horned larks are considered grassland birds, they have specific preferences within a prairie habitat. They are most prevalent on flat, tree-less terrain that has short grass and/or bare ground. Many biologists feel this is an instinctual hold-over from pre-settlement days when they gathered in areas where large herds of bison had wallowed, bedded down and heavily grazed the surrounding vegetation. Their preference for sparsely vegetated areas of grassland habitat has linked horned larks to prairie dog conservation in several western states. Studies have shown horned larks like the short-grass/bare ground mix prevalent at sites where prairie dog towns are found. Horned larks are one of several bird species whose numbers have shown a decrease when prairie dogs disappear from an area.
Life cycle: Horned larks are year-round residents of Missouri. Courtship and breeding takes place in spring and early summer. The nests begin as shallow depressions on the ground to which the female adds dry grass, plant down and plant stems. The female builds her nest near stones or under small plants in open, sandy and/or barren areas. The female lays three to four glossy eggs that range from gray to greenish in color with brown spots. Incubation is 10 to 14 days. The chicks fledge in nine to 12 days. In warmer climates, successful parents can have two or three broods per year.