Horned Lark

Eremophila alpestris
Global Range Map

The Horned Lark is the only true lark native to North America, and is a common, widespread bird of open grasslands, and lives year-round over most of the USA’s lower forty-eight states and northern Mexico, but in summer some will migrate north to Alaska and Canada’s Arctic islands. They are equally at home at sea level, to the high mountains (hence the name alpestris, meaning “of the high mountains”) and all elevations in between. Yet despite this versatility, their numbers have declined during the past half-century.

North American Range Map

Not just a native to North America, Horned Larks occupy an equally wide range in Asia and eastern Europe. With such a wide distribution around the globe, it is no surprise there would be substantial variation in this species. Taxonomists recognise at least 40 subspecies of Horned Lark from around the world. Those cited as living in the New World are:

  • E. a. alpestris, breeds from western Ontario east to the Canadian Maritime Provinces. They spend winters from Manitoba and Newfoundland south to Kansas and North Carolina.
  • E. a. arcticola, breeds in Alaska and the Yukon south to mountains of British Columbia. In winter, they move south to the interior of British Columbia and in northern California east to Wyoming.
  • E. a. hoyti breeds from Baffin Island to northern Alberta and east to Ontario. They spend winters from Nevada to Michigan.
  • E. a. enthymia breeds throughout much of the Great Plains from Saskatchewan and Manitoba to panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. They move southward in winter.
  • E. a. leucolaema breeds from southern Alberta to western Minnesota, and south to central Colorado and New Mexico. In winter, their range extends to south Texas and Sonora (Mexico).
  • E. a. praticola breeds from Minnesota to Nova Scotia and south to Kansas and North Carolina. In winter, some move as far south as Florida.
  • E. a. giraudi lives on the coastal prairie from Louisiana to Tamaulipas (Mexico).
  • E. a. merrilli, live from British Columbia to northern California.
  • E. a. lamprochroma breeds from eastern Washington to northern California and east to Nevada. In winter, they range southward to southern California and Arizona.
  • E. a. utahensis breeds from central Utah to central Nevada and north to Idaho.
  • E. a sierrae lives in northeastern California along the Nevada border.
  • E. a. strigata breeds along the coast from southern British Columbia to Oregon,
  • E. a. insularisE. a. rubeaE. a. actia, and E. a. ammophila are primarily Californian races.
  • E. a. leucansiptila lives in southeastern California to northwestern Sonora.
  • E. a. enertera lives in west-central Baja California (Mexico).
  • E. a. occidentalis breeds from northern Arizona to central New Mexico.
  • E. a. adusta lives in the grasslands of southern Arizona and New Mexico.
  • E. a. alpina breeds only in the Cascade and Olympic mountains of Washington, and winters in the surrounding lowlands.
  • E. a. oaxacaeE. a. diaphoraD. a. chrysolaema, and D. a. aphrasta all live in northern and central Mexico
  • E. a. peregrina lives in South American.
  • plus 16 or 17 more subspecies in Eurasia.

Horned Larks have some interesting breeding and nesting behaviors. When it comes time for courting, the female advertises her readiness for breeding by bowing low to the ground in what looks like taking a dust bath. Interested males will hover in low orbiting flights over her. Later she will spend a few days excavating a depression on the ground as a nesting site, lining it with grasses, and finally she paves her porch with pebbles and other objects. Science doesn’t understand the reason for the paving.

Until 2022, my meetings with these birds have been in California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah. I’ve only met one juvenile Horned Lark during the first BioBlitz event the San Diego Natural History Museum held in Balboa Park in May 2008, which suggested a breeding presence nearby. In the spring of 2022, I traveled western North America, including Canada, where I met many of these birds in Saskatchewan’s agricultural fields.

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