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horned lark

Eremophila alpestris

What do they look like?

The most distinguishing physical characteristic of horned larks is the pair of black feather tufts on the top of their head. The tufts look like little horns. 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. The breast is white with a black patch, and the body is brown. The tail is black. Horned larks are 18 to 20 cm long with a wingspan of 31.12 to 35.56 cm. On the hind toe, there is a long, straight claw. The claw or 'larkspur' is a common characteristic of members of the lark family (Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000). Females generally have the same patterns as males, but are smaller, have a duller appearance, and have gray coloring instead of black in some areas. Males weigh 32 g on average, females 30.6 g. (Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000; Kaufman, 1996; Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History Website, 1998)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Average mass
    31 g
    1.09 oz
  • Average mass
    26 g
    0.92 oz
    AnAge
  • Range length
    18 to 20 cm
    7.09 to 7.87 in
  • Range wingspan
    31.12 to 35.56 cm
    12.25 to 14.00 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.3133 W
    AnAge

Where do they live?

Eremophila alpestris spans across North America, and also inhabits Asia and northern Europe. It lives throughout the western, central, and eastern United States, including Alaska, and throughout northern and southern Canada. While some individuals migrate to the Gulf Coast for several months during the winter, many inhabit one area year-round. (Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000; Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001; Kaufman, 1996)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Eremophila alpestris is a temperate species that prefers large open land devoid of large obstacles such as trees. It can generally be found in fields, prairies, and dry tundra. Horned larks are also known to inhabit places with widespread lawns, such as airports. They are most often found on the ground. (Alsop, 2001; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Kaufman, 1996)

How do they grow?

No information could be found except to say that this bird follows the general bird development stages of starting in an egg, hatching, and then maturing in the nest with its parents (Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, 1998).

How do they reproduce?

To attract a female and mark his reproductive territory, the male horned lark will engage in a "song flight" (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001). He flies quickly up to eight hundred feet above the ground, and circles for several minutes. While circling, he sings. After hovering, he dives straight toward the ground with his wings closed. Just before reaching the ground, he opens his wings, catches air and lands softly in his territory. These birds are monogamous. (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Kaufman, 1996)

Breeding often occurs very early in the spring, but most E. alpestris begin breeding in June. The nests begin as shallow depressions in the ground and the female adds dry grass, plant down, and plant stems. The female builds her nests near stones or under small plants in open, sandy and/or barren areas. Small pebbles that act as a doorstep surround one side of the nest. The female lays 3 to 4 glossy eggs that range from gray to greenish white in color with light brown spots. Incubation lasts 10 to 14 days and the chicks fledge in 9 to 12 days. In warmer climates, successful parents can have two or three broods per year. (Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History Website, 1998)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Eremophila alpestris breed yearly and can have up to three clutches in one season
  • Breeding season
    Spring and Summer
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 4
  • Average eggs per season
    4
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    10 to 14 days
  • Range fledging age
    9 to 12 days

Both parents aid in caring for the altricial (helpless) young. The female usually lays three to four eggs and incubates them for ten to fourteen days; both the male and female feed the chicks after they hatch. The chicks are sometimes brooded. Young generally leave the nest within nine to twelve days of hatching, several days before they are able to fly. They continue to be fed by the parents for some time after fledging. (Alsop, 2001; Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000; Kaufman, 1996)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

We do not have information on lifespan/longevity for this species at this time.

How do they behave?

Eremophila alpestris is sometimes a social bird that lives in flocks with others of its species. Flocking occurs most often in populations that live near ocean shores. Some horned larks are solitary. Some populations of horned larks are sedentary, but most are migratory and fly south for a few months during the winter. The "song flight" behavior used by males to attract mates and defend territories is an especially distinguishable behavior (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001). When foraging for food on the ground, horned larks do not hop; they walk or run. They sing on the ground and in the air at all elevations. (Alsop, 2001; Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Kaufman, 1996; Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History Website, 1998)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.

How do they communicate with each other?

The song of E. alpestris is irregular and high-pitched. It has a tinkling, rapid warble that sounds like a "tsip, tsip, tsee, didididi" (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001). They use song to defend territories, attract mates, and for general communication with others in the flock. (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001; Kaufman, 1996)

What do they eat?

Eremophila alpestris forages for food around the open spaces in which it lives. It does not scan for food by flight, but rather searches by covering the ground on foot. Unless it is nesting, it will usually search for food with others from its flock. Horned larks are omnivorous. They feed on insects and other arthropods including: spiders, ants, grasshoppers and wasps. They also eat snails, as well as the fruits, berries and seeds of some plants. (Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000; Kaufman, 1996)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

The brownish coloring of the body helps E. alpestris hide in the dry grasses of its environment. The coloration of the nestlings' down also acts as camouflage. The young leave the nest before they can fly, so when threatened, they freeze and depend on their cryptic coloring to keep them hidden.

Common predators include: raccoons (Procyon lotor), domestic cats (Felis silvestris) and skunks (subfamily Mephitinae). (Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000; Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001)

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • cryptic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Eremophila alpestris occasionally acts as a host for parasitic cowbirds. Eremophila alpestris young suffer from cowbird parasitism because the parents neglect them to take care of the cowbird young. Cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of Eremophila alpestris, and when they hatch, the horned lark parents care for them, which takes away from the care of their own eggs. As a result, the cowbird chicks thrive and the Eremophila alpestris chicks suffer. Cowbird chicks are much larger than horned lark chicks which enables them to devour all the food the parents bring before the lark chicks get the chance.

Horned larks also have an impact on the insects and plants they consume. (Burghardt, 2002; Ehrlich, et al., 1988)

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse affects of E. alpestris on humans.

How do they interact with us?

As an insectivore E. alpestris can help control insect pests.

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Due to increases in the development of clear prairies and grasslands, populations of E. alpestris are declining. Humans play both a positive and negative role in the conservation of this species: they develop unused land, which eliminates habitat space, and they create large fields for grazing animals and crops, which the birds thrive in. Many times, after natural disasters such as fires, forests grow where open grassland used to be, this forces the birds to find new areas to inhabit. The conservation of open land is vital to the survival and successful breeding of this bird. There was no record of this species on the U.S. ESA Threatened and Endangered Species list or CITES. Horned larks are protected by the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act. (Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000; Kaufman, 1996)

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Tatiana Martinez (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Kerry Yurewicz (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

References

Alsop, F. 2001. Birds of North America Western Region. London: DK Publishing.

Burghardt, R. 2002. "The cow bird nomadic parasite" (On-line). Accessed 01/08/04 at http://inin.essortment.com/cowbird_rkws.htm.

Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2000. "Wildlife In Connecticut Endangered and Threatened Species Series" (On-line). Accessed 01/08/04 at http://dep.state.ct.us/burnatr/wildlife/factshts/hlark.htm.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2001. "Horned Lark" (On-line). Accessed 01/08/04 at http://birds.cornell.edu/bow/horlar/index.html.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History Website, 1998. "Horned Lark" (On-line). Accessed 01/08/04 at http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mnh/nature/nsbirds/bns0253.htm.

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Martinez, T. 2002. "Eremophila alpestris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 29, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Eremophila_alpestris/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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