Horned Larks

Horned Lark

A male horned lark stands on a rock. Note the feathers sticking up like “horns,” hence the common name.

Several weeks ago, we were making our second winter pilgrimage to Lamar Valley hoping to add additional birds to our January list and images to our stock files. The snow was deeper than we have ever seen it and the rosy finches and other songbirds that we found last year were noticeably absent.

We decided to spend a few hours along the river north of Gardiner, Montana where we were staying in an attempt to change our luck. And we did. We quickly added two bald eagles, common mergansers (not so common around here) and common goldeneyes to our list. We still did not see much for songbirds until a flock of about 20 crossed the road in front of us. They were far enough out to make them hard to distinguish even with binoculars, but I was sure that they were horned larks. Zooming in on a few images from my 600 mm lens/camera confirmed it.

Horned larks are sparrow-sized songbirds that are easily recognized if you can get one in close enough. They have a distinctive yellow and black patterned face, brown-gray back and almost all black tail, distinctive in flight. The male also has feathers that stick up like “horns” during breeding season, and the reason for the common name.

Horned larks have one of the widest distributions across the North American continent. They can be found year-round in every state except Florida and can even be found there on occasion. They extend to Central Mexico and during the breeding months can be found all the way to the Arctic Ocean. They are also common throughout Europe (where they are known as shore larks), China, Russia and parts in between.

Not only are they widespread geographically, they also have an impressive elevational range. Horned larks can be found from sea level up to 13,000 feet. In fact, Carl Linnaeus, the father of our current binomial identification system (genus and species) named them, alpestris, or “lark of the mountains.”

With a worldwide distribution, it is no surprise that there are different flavors of horned lark. I was amazed to learn, however, that there are 42 of them. Recent genetic analysis may turn this on its head though as some taxonomists are suggesting that the differences are strong enough to warrant dividing horned larks into four or even six species.

Horned larks are the only members of the lark family (Alaudidae) that live in North America. Of the 17 recognized lark genera and 91-100 species (depending on which reference you believe), fifty percent live in Africa. The others are spread across the Old World.

Horned larks are birds of the open fields, meadows, prairies, deserts, beaches, and tundra. If it is open country, horned larks are likely to be there. They glean seeds and insects from bare dry ground, only occasionally from bushes.

The female takes the lead in courtship, indicating her readiness to breed with a dance described as, “similar to taking a dust bath.” Then she proceeds to build a nest, without help from the male, on the ground in a natural depression that she may improve upon before weaving her cuplike nest. In that nest she will deposit 2-5 gray-colored and brown-spotted inch long eggs that hatch about 12 days later. Chicks are out of the nest following mom within 10 days.

During the winter months, expect to find horned larks in flocks like we did. Sometimes these flocks can become quite large, numbering in the hundreds. So, if you see a large flock of sparrow-sized birds, there is a good chance that closer examination will show them to be horned larks.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho