Horned Larks are worthy of our attention
Appreciating a bird of barren fields across the Northern Hemisphere.
The temperature struggled to make it past 20 degrees in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a few weeks ago on Dec. 19. It was a relatively mild day by Mongolia standards and a good day to identify birds on the steppe. One birder had 17 species: Eurasian specialties like Daurian Jackdaw, Azure-winged Magpie and Hawfinch. Also on the list: Horned Lark, yes, the same larks we have in Illinois.
Horned Larks are found all across the Northern Hemisphere. They’re birds of barren fields, their drab coloration blending in perfectly with clods of soil in winter farm fields. Some Horned Larks stay in the Midwestern section of North America all year long, finding shelter and forage in the narrow grass strips around farms. Others arrive here from points much, much farther north.
Larks can be easy to overlook. It’s likely that few people pay much mind to them at all. But in the winter, when there is nothing to see but frozen soil, they are rather enchanting birds to observe. They forage along roadsides, picking up seed and grit, before flitting back to those clumps of dirt. They spook easily but never seem to go too far away. Often they return to the same location, making little chips that are about the only sound other than the wind. In the summer, they have a lilting song that is the soundtrack of a warm morning in many places.
Horned Larks are our only lark species in North America, though there are a whopping 42 Horned Lark subspecies globally. They’re tough to place taxonomically. They’re not really thrushes or blackbirds or sparrows, but they have a few things in common with all of those.
Standing in an Illinois farm field in winter is akin to standing on the surface of some distant planet that’s yet to be explored. It’s also a lot like the drab expanses of the Mongolian steppe. And it’s the Horned Lark that connects us to these disparate worlds.
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