My wife and I saw our first horned larks in Wabasha County, in southeastern Minnesota, in March 1988. As best we can recall, we were spending the weekend at a bed and breakfast and took an afternoon to drive around the county looking for birds. Neither of us remembers where we stayed, but we both remember the horned larks. What gorgeous birds!
At about seven inches in length, the horned lark looks like a smaller, slimmer version of a meadowlark. It sports that same V-necked sweater look. The male actually does have feathery “horns” on its head, above and behind the eyes, but they aren’t always displayed. The horns are joined by a black “sweatband” across the forehead.
The male horned lark also has a dark mask that droops down the cheek and a matching dark, V-necked breast band. The chin and neck are yellow with a hint of yellow in the eyebrow. The back is brown, the underside white. The female is similarly marked but in more muted colors.
The horned lark is the only lark species native to North America, but there are over 20 subspecies of them. The color of the back has evolved to match the color of the earth in their local habitat. Those in the desert southwest have light brown backs; those in the Arctic tundra have darker backs that match the reindeer moss and other vegetation clinging to the earth.
Some horned larks spend the winter in southern Minnesota, sometimes as far north as the Twin Cities. The horned larks that migrate south begin returning north into Minnesota in early February through late March. This year, they were reported near Rochester on February 5.
I’ve found them most regularly along quiet country roads as the snow is just beginning to disappear from the fields. They’re usually pecking along the edges of a gravel road in small groups. They’re often fairly tame and just crouch when you approach. But as you get closer, they lift up and skim over the field, then drop suddenly and melt into the ground color.
They’ve been known to sit still for as long as five minutes. If you watch very carefully, especially if you scan slowly with binoculars, you will see them begin to run and stop, run and stop, along the furrows, like robins would. They run with the head down and on foot look more like a mouse than a bird.
Their song is a high-pitched tinkley sound, often hard to hear. In 1907, Dr. Charles W. Townsend described it as “a jingling metallic sound like distant sleigh bells,” accompanied by “squeaks that remind one strongly of an old gate. The whole effect, however, is not unpleasant — even melodious.”
Since horned larks breed in places with very few trees or places to perch, the song is usually given in flight, the better to broadcast it over a wider area. A.C. Bent, an early American ornithologist, reported he had never seen one alight in a tree.
In fact, for its courtship display, the male sings while it ascends to about 800 feet, then circles and sings for up to several minutes before folding its wings and diving headfirst toward the ground. It flares out at the last second, puffs up its chest, droops its wings and raises its horns to strut before the female.
I’ve always wondered if this death-defying dive to the earth is nature’s way of thinning the below-average fliers out of the gene pool. If you don’t pull out of the dive in time, you don’t get to reproduce.
The horned larks passing through Minnesota are usually heading for far-northern Canada, to the tundra, where the Arctic wind and long cold winters keep willows and birch trees no more than a few inches high. The larks prefer wide-open spaces with little or scrubby vegetation.
Pete Dunne, in his “Essential Field Guide Companion,” calls the horned lark “a barren-ground specialist.”
When they’re on their breeding territory, their diet includes moths, butterflies, caterpillars, beetles, wasps, spiders, grasshoppers and large ants, as well as the fruits and seeds of the bog bilberry.
But since horned larks migrate northward so early in the year, they have to be very resourceful at finding things to eat along the way. They really like winter corn fields, where they pry cutworms out of the base of the corn plants. They also favor sod farms, athletic fields, the trimmed edges of airport runways — anyplace with very short grass.
While there’s still snow on the ground, horned larks frequent feed lots and farmyards, looking for grain spills, and they especially like plowed fields that have been freshly spread with manure.
So this spring when I drive down Roselawn Avenue and notice that pungent odor from the St. Paul campus fields, I’ll slow down and look for horned larks creeping among the furrows. Depending on the wind direction, I may leave the windows rolled up.