By Russ Chappell
One fine day you forgo our beautiful lakes and wooded habitats and decide to bird a local open area — and are shocked to see small brown creatures, the size of rats, creeping through a barren field. When you look closer, you notice these “rats” have bright yellow faces, black masks, and tiny “horns” waving in the wind. You’ve spotted one of our native, local, year-round residents: Horned Larks.
Their habitats include prairies, deserts, tundra, beaches, dunes, and heavily grazed pastures from sea level to 13,000 feet. They’re frequently seen in cleared areas, such as plowed fields and mowed areas around airstrips, and flying above open country in flocks that number into the hundreds.
At 6-8 inches long with wingspans of 12-13 inches, these tiny birds eat seeds and insects and sing a high “tinkling” song. They are the only larks native to North America. They forage in pairs or small groups during breeding season and form large flocks in winter.
Nests are built on bare ground in natural depressions or areas excavated by the female, who uses her bill to loosen the dirt and fling it aside, though she occasionally uses her feet, too. The nest is a woven basket of fine grass and plants lined with soft material — down, fur, feathers, lint, and even string — 3-4 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches deep. During the breeding season, Horned Larks raise 1-3 broods of 2-5 dark gray, spotted, oval eggs that are about an inch in length. Young are born helpless with a buff-colored down, leave the nest within 10 days, and are fed primarily insects to provide a high-protein diet to aid growth.
Ground dwellers, Horned Larks, their eggs, and their young are often prey for raptors, voles, shrews, deer mice, weasels, skunks, and raccoons. If her nest is threatened, the female moves away, pretending to be injured and calling out with a soft distress call.
If you wish to add this small bird to your Big List, consider a drive in Chino Valley area, or for more information visit the National Audubon Society website, Audubon.Org, or watch YouTube videos via the Prescott Audubon Society website, PrescottAudubon.Org. Happy birding!
Visit Prescott Audubon Society at PrescottAudubon.Org. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAudubon.Org.
Russ Chappell is a Prescott Audubon Society member and supports the Chapter as webmaster.