Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris

by Frank Keim

original artwork by Frank Keim

Although the Horned lark nests in the Lower Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, it is only seen by those who actively seek it out. This is because it nests primarily in alpine mountainous regions, such as the Andreafsky Mountains, the alpine highlands behind Russian Mission and Marshall, and in parts of the Kuskokwim Mountains. That’s probably why I didn’t find a Yup’ik name for it. It is the only native lark found in North America, so in that sense is a special bird.

It’s also special because it is the earliest nesting migrant songbird we have in Alaska, with the males arriving in late April and early May when they immediately establish their nesting territories. The male defends the territory by singing a sort of tinkling song either in flight or on the ground.

In flight, the male flies up steeply for several hundred feet into the air, circles and hovers for a few minutes while singing, then with wings closed, dives steeply down toward the alpine tundra. After landing, as he continues to sing, he prominently displays the feather-horns on his head. These horns are also meant to attract the attention of any female who may be watching nearby.

If another male tries to move in on his territory, they go to war, with both males flying at each other, rising 50 feet straight up into the air, pecking and clawing, and sometimes continuing the battle on the ground where they strike each other with their extended wings. The winner keeps or takes the territory and possibly the female observer who stays behind.

If the female remains, she doesn’t waste any time to begin nesting. She alone selects a dry shallow depression on open ground, preferably next to a clump of grass, and starts to weave her basket-like nest, which she first lines with grass, weeds, small roots, then finishes with a softer inner lining of fine grass, fur, feathers and plant down. Sometimes she places a flat “doorstep” of pebbles on one side of the nest.

Now, she’s ready to lay her 4-5 eggs, which are a dark pearl gray color and well camouflaged, with cinnamon or olive brown spots. The incubation period before the eggs hatch is about 11 days, and it takes another 9-12 days of feeding mostly protein-rich insects by both parents to their helpless buffy down-covered nestlings until they’re strong enough to follow their mother out of the nest. At this point, the young learn how to feed themselves, and a week later they can usually take their first flight. In the north country, Horned larks only have one brood.

Since Horned larks are ground birds, they have to constantly be on the alert for both ground and aerial predators. This is especially true when the female is brooding eggs and after the young hatch. While still on eggs, if the female has to leave the nest to eat she conceals her location by skulking away stealthily then flying silently near the ground. She is reluctant to return if any predators lurk nearby.

If she is repeatedly flushed from the nest she will perform a distraction display, which includes fluttering up and landing about a foot from the nest in a crouched position with her wings spread, sometimes uttering soft distress calls. If she continues to be pursued, she walks rapidly away from the nest before taking off. This same strategy applies to both parents after the eggs hatch and they must constantly feed their hatchlings. On hot sunny days, the mother bird will shade both eggs and young in the nest with her wings.

After the hatchlings leave the nest with their mother to learn their parents’ strategies for survival in a world full of predators (such as jaegers that hunt from the air, and those like weasels and shrews that hunt on the ground), they scurry behind them searching for tidbits on the ground or from plants low enough to reach.

At first, both parents pitch in to help feed them as many insects as they can find, but after the young fledge and can mostly hunt for themselves, their diet changes to a mix of both insects and grains. Their prey include grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, spiders and even earthworms.

Although they mostly feed from the ground, they will also perch on plants to glean the seeds from their seed heads. At higher elevations where there is still snow, they may follow their parents to the snowfields in late afternoon to forage plant or insect debris blown there by morning winds. As they move south during migration, they may supplement their diet with berries of low-growing plants.

Although Horned larks have lost most of their population since 1966 they are still fairly numerous, and with Climate Change have even had new nesting and feeding areas open up for them in the north. The problem is in winter when they return to the Lower 48 and they have to compete for limited habitat that has been damaged or destroyed by human activities.

I still spot them there, though, especially in the Southwest during mid-winter in large mixed flocks with sparrows and longspurs. They are a pleasure to see down there, too.