E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Eremophila alpestris (Linnaeus, 1758)
Horned Lark
Family: Alaudidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman

Photo of species

© Tom Munson  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #10894)


Distribution of Eremophila alpestris in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Adult male
The upperparts, including the back, scapulars, upperwings, and rump are brownish to greyish-brown, often with a pinkish or rusty tinge on the rump and uppertail coverts; the back and scapulars are faintly streaked with darker greyish-brown, and the wing feathers (upperwing coverts, flight feathers) are narrowly fringed with slightly paler buffy-brown. The tail is blackish, with greyish-brown central feathers and narrow white outer feathers (creating a tricoloured tail pattern). The underparts are whitish (sometimes faintly washed with yellow on the lower breast), with greyish-brown on the sides of the breast, sides, and flanks (often tinged with pinkish or rusty on the sides of the breast); there is a bold black collar across the upper breast. The central crown, nape, and hindneck are greyish-brown, usually with a pinkish or rusty tinge, and the forecrown and sides of the crown are black and flare into a pair of small black “horns” near the hindcrown. The forehead and supercilium are whitish or pale yellow, contrasting sharply with the black mask across the lores and lower portion of the ear coverts; the rear portion of the ear coverts range from whitish to pale yellowish, often tinged with brown. The chin and throat are whitish or yellowish, depending on subspecies. The iris is dark, the short, sturdy, pointed bill is blackish with a pale greyish or flesh-coloured base to the lower mandible (bill sometimes more extensively pale), and the legs and feet are blackish.

Adult female
The female is similar in plumage to the male, but is slightly duller and browner, with a significantly duller pattern on the face and breast. The black mask and breast band of the male are replaced with dull greyish-brown, and the overall pattern of the face is noticeably duller. The “horns” are smaller and less prominent than the male, and are rarely erected.

Juvenile
This plumage is held until late summer (August) of the first year. The upperparts are largely buffy-brown or greyish-brown, with fine white speckles and buffy feather edges throughout the back, rump, and scapulars. The upperwings are brown, with two whitish wing bars and extensive buffy or whitish fringes on the upperwing coverts and flight feathers. The tail pattern is similar to that of the adult. The underparts are whitish with variable brownish mottling and speckling on the breast, sides, and flanks. The crown and nape are dark brown with fine white speckling, separated from the dusky-grey or brownish-grey ear coverts by a weak pale superciulium and pale lores. The chin, throat, and sides of the neck are whitish or buffy-white. Bare part colouration is similar to the adult, but the bill is typically paler (largely horn-coloured or greyish with a dark tip and culmen).

Measurements
Total Length: 17-20 cm
Mass: 30-41 g

Source: Beason (1995); Sibley (2000)

Biology

Identification

This is a distinctive species in the context of British Columbia, and is likely to be confused only with the extremely small and local population of Sky Larks that occurs on southern Vancouver Island. Horned Lark is easily distinguished, however, by its contrasting face and breast pattern (fainter, but still evident, in females and immatures), unstreaked underparts, and overall less buffy and streaky plumage. Juvenile Horned Lark is more similar in plumage to Sky Lark, but is less buffy and is finely speckled with white throughout the upperparts. Other small birds of similar habitats, such as American Pipit and Lapland Longspur, are smaller than Horned Lark and differ substantially in structure, plumage, and behaviour.
Vocalizations

The song, which is given either from flight or from a perch, is a high-pitched, weak series of lisping chirps followed by a rapid, rising, tinkling warble: reeek trik treet tritilititi. Calls include a soft, high-pitched, single- or double-noted weet or tsee-titi and a variety of other tinkling or buzzy notes.

Source: Beason (1995); Sibley (2000)

Breeding Ecology

Courtship
Pair formation occurs immediately after arrival on the breeding grounds in spring. During the male’s courtship display, the body is held horizontal while the wings are drooped and the tail is spread. This display is accompanied by chittering sounds while he struts back and forth in front of the female, vibrating his wings and spreading his black chest patch. The male also performs sexual chases, usually starting on the ground and often involving flight. The female sometimes engages in a courtship display to solicit copulation, during which she crouches her body, droops her wings, and vibrates her tail from side to side.

Nest
Nest building typically occurs in early to late April or during May, shortly after arrival on the breeding grounds, with the initiation of nest building occurring earliest at low elevations in the southern interior and latest at high elevations or in the far north (due to persistent snow cover). The female alone chooses the nesting site (usually in an area of bare or sparsely-vegetated, dry ground) and constructs the nest, which takes 2-4 days. The nest is a small, compact cup that is situated on the ground in a shallow depression. It is constructed of fine plant material such as grass, plant stems, and rootlets, with a lining of finer material such as down, fur, fine grasses, feathers, or even string. Many nests include a collection of “pavings” such as cow dung or pebbles adjacent to the nest. The nest is 8.5-9 cm in diameter and 4-5 cm in depth and is usually situated beside or beneath some form of cover, such as a tuft of grass, dirt clod, or large rock.

Eggs
A clutch of (2) 4 (7) eggs is laid between mid-April and mid-May (E.a.merrilli) or between mid-May and mid-June (E.a.arcticola), and is incubated by the female for 11-12 days before hatching. This species is double-brooded in much of its range (except in the far north), and a second clutch is often laid in mid-summer (late June to mid-July) following successful fledging of the first brood. The smooth, glossy eggs are pale greyish and are heavily and finely spotted with brownish or olive spots (often concentrated around the larger end or forming a wreath). This species is an infrequent host for Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism. Eggs are present in B.C. between mid-April and early August.

Young
The young are fully altricial and downy at hatching, with brown skin and long, pale creamy-buff down on the top of the head and back. The mouth is bright orange-yellow with yellow gape flanges and three dark spots on the tongue. The nestlings remain in the nest for 8-10 (12) days after hatching, during which time they are tended by both parents. The fledglings are tended by the parents for an additional 2-3 weeks after fledging. Nestlings and dependent fledglings have been recorded in B.C. between mid-April and late August, with most present between late May and late July.

Source: Beason (1995); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Campbell et al. (2001)
Foraging Ecology

Seeds are the dominant food item consumed throughout the year, although insects and other invertebrates are prominent in the diet during spring and fall migration. During the breeding season, adults feed insects to the young but consume primarily seeds themselves. Almost all foraging occurs on the ground, usually on bare ground in in areas of sparse, short vegetation. When moving along the ground in search of food, this species uses a distinctive walking (vs. hopping) gait. Most seeds and insects are gleaned from the ground or low vegetation, but individuals will sometimes run after flying insects for several metres after flushing them.

Source: Beason (1995)

Habitat


The Horned Lark is strictly associated with open habitats throughout the year, and typically prefers areas with only sparse, short vegetation. Breeding populations in northern B.C. and in the mountain ranges of southern and central B.C. (E.a.arcticola) occur solely at high elevations on alpine meadows, barren ridges, fell fields, scree slopes, and dry tundra; foraging birds often range onto snowfields. Populations breeding at low elevations in the southern interior (E.a.merrilli) are restricted to open, arid, often overgrazed grasslands and rolling prairies and avoid dry brushy habitats such as sagebrush steppes. Migrants in the interior occur in open habitats such as grasslands, agricultural areas, grassy meadows, lakeshores, river bars, airports, and golf courses; in forested areas, fall migrants are often associated with recent clearcuts, roadsides, and landings. Along the coast, migrants occur primarily on beaches, dunes, mudflats, rock jetties, agricultural areas, airports, and other open habitats with short vegetation.

Source: Campbell et al. (1997)

Distribution

Global Range

Breeds widely across much of North America, from Alaska east to Baffin Island and Newfoundland, south through much of Canada and the United States (although absent from much of the boreal forest, the Pacific coast of Canada and the northwestern U.S., and the southeastern U.S.) to northern and central Mexico. There is an isolated population in Columbia. It is also widespread throughout much of Eurasia, from Europe east across northern and central Asia, with an isolated population in northern Africa (Morocco).
BC Distribution

Breeding
Fairly common to common across northern B.C. from the Coast Mountains east to the Rocky Mountains, as well as south at alpine elevations along the Coast Mountains to the northern Cascade Range (Manning Park, Cathedral Lakes, etc.). Uncommon at high elevations south along the Rocky Mountains of eastern B.C., as well as in the Cariboo Range east of Quesnel and north of Kamloops. Uncommon to fairly common in the grasslands of the south-central interior, primarily in the Thompson-Nicola Basin and the Chilcotin region (rare through the Okanagan Valley), and rare to uncommon in the southern Rocky Mountain Trench of the southeastern interior. Formerly uncommon and local in extreme southwestern B.C. (southeast Vancouver Island, Lower Mainland) but apparently now extirpated from this region.

Winter
Uncommon in winter in the grasslands of the south-central interior, including the Okanagan Valley and Thompson-Nicola Basin. Very rare and irregular farther north in winter to the Chilcotin region, and casual east to the Arrow Lakes and Creston Valley. It is also very rare in winter on the south coast, including southeast Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, and casual north to the northern mainland coast and Queen Charlotte Islands.

Migration
Uncommon to fairly common spring and fall migrant throughout the interior (east of the Coast Mountains). Rare spring and uncommon fall migrant on the south coast (primarily Vancouver Island and the southern mainland coast) and very rare spring and fall migrant on the northern and central mainland coast, including the Queen Charlotte Islands, and northern and western Vancouver Island.

The first spring migrants appear in the southern interior in late February or early March and numbers build throughout March and the first half of April, with the latest northward-bound migrants moving through the southern interior in late April or early May. The earliest spring migrants in the southern interior (February, early March) are largely referable to E.a.merrilli, with flocks of E.a.arcticola moving through primarily in March and April. In the central interior, the earliest spring migrants do not appear until mid-to late March (exceptionally as early as late February), with most birds moving through between mid-April and early May; the latest spring migrants in this area occur in late May. In the far north, spring migration occurs between mid- to late April and late May, with peak movements during the first half of May. On the south coast, the earliest spring migrants appear in early February, with small numbers moving through during March and April; the latest spring migrants on the south coast occur into mid- to late May.

Fall migrants are first noted away from the breeding grounds in the interior in early August, with peak southward movements occurring throughout the interior between late August and late September (central interior) or late October (southern interior). Most birds have vacated the far north by early to mid-September, but farther south the latest fall migrants often linger into late October (central interior) or mid-November (southern interior). The latest fall migrants in the southern interior are often difficult to differentiate from wintering populations. On the south coast, fall migration occurs primarily between late August and mid-November, with peak movements between mid-September and late October.

Source: Campbell et al. (1997)

Conservation

Population and Conservation Status

Although Horned Lark populations are relatively large and stable throughout much of British Columbia, populations that formerly bred on the south coast (E.a.strigata) have suffered greatly from a variety of factors over the past century and now appear to be extirpated from the province. This subspecies was formerly an uncommon breeder in Garry Oak meadows, coastal dunes, pastures, farmlands, and open fields on southeastern Vancouver Island and throughout the Lower Mainland (east to Chilliwack). Fire suppression, urban and industrial development, exotic plant invasion, and intensive agricultural practices (mowing, etc.) have altered or destroyed most of the historical habitat for this species, however, and this led to a precipitous decline throughout the 20th century. The last confirmed breeding in this province was in 1978, and the last confirmed observation of an individual occurred in 2002 on Vancouver Island. Populations of E.a.strigata are declining significantly elsewhere throughout its small range (southwest Washington, northwest Oregon), with only 300-500 individuals remaining.

The subspecies breeding in the grasslands of the south-central interior (E.a.merrilli) is also relatively uncommon and is recognized as a blue-listed species by the B.C. CDC (Conservation Data Centre); however, it adapts well to disturbed landscapes (including overgrazed grasslands) and does not appear to be experiencing any particularly serious declines.

Source: Campbell et al. (2001); Garry Oak Recovery Team (2003)

Taxonomy


The Horned Lark is one of the most widespread and geographically variable species of passerines in the world, with no less than 21 subspecies currently recognized in North America (and many others in Eurasia, Mexico, and South America). Much of this geographic variation is relatively weakly defined, however, with numerous examples of clinal variation and broad intergradation. Four subspecies are listed as occurring in British Columbia, with a fifth subspecies possibly occurring locally in southwestern portions of the province.

The subspecies occurring (or suspected of occurring) in British Columbia are as follows:

Eremophila alpestris arcticola (Oberholser)
This subspecies is known as the “Pallid” Horned Lark. It breeds widely throughout alpine regions of northern B.C., as well as south along the Coast and Rocky Mountains, and winters in the southern interior of the province. It is the most widespread migratory subspecies, including in coastal areas of the province. This subspecies is larger than other western subspecies, and has a wholly white throat and supercilium. It is noticeably paler than adjacent populations of E.a.merrilli.

Eremophila alpestris hoyti (Bishop)
This subspecies is known as the “Arctic” Horned Lark. It breeds in arctic regions of the Northwest Territories and other northern regions (northern Alberta east to northern Ontario) and is a fairly common migrant through the Fort Nelson region of extreme northeastern B.C. There is a single specimen record of this subspecies from the Okanagan Valley in winter. It is similar to E.a.arcticola, but has slightly darker and browner upperparts as well as a yellow throat.

Eremophila alpestris merrilli (Dwight)
This subspecies is known as the “Dusky” Horned Lark. It breeds grassland habitats at low elevations in the southern interior of the province (Chilcotin region, Thompson-Nicola Basin, southern Rocky Mountain Trench, etc.) and winters in the western United States (very rarely into the southern interior of B.C.). This subspecies is smaller than E.a.arcticola, and is relatively dark and brown on the upperparts with a yellow throat and supercilium. The breast (below the black breast band) is sometimes faintly washed with yellow.

Eremophila alpestris strigata (Henshaw)
This subspecies is known as the “Streaked” Horned Lark. It was a former breeder on southeastern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, but is now apparently extirpated. This is a small, dark subspecies with a yellowish wash on the underparts (especially the lower breast), a pinkish or rufous tinge to the daker brown upperparts and sides, and an extensively yellow throat and supercilium.

Eremophila alpestris alpina (Jewett)
This subspecies is known as the “Alpine” Horned Lark. It breeds in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains of western Washington, and may range as a breeder into extreme southwestern B.C. along the Cascade Mountains (Manning Park, Cathedral Lakes) or during the winter in coastal or southern interior regions of the province. It is very similar to the more widespread E.a.arcticola, but is smaller and less brownish (upperparts more strongly tinged with pinkish).

Source: Beason (1995); Campbell et al. (1997); Pyle (1997)

Status Information

Scientific NameOrigin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
COSEWIC
Eremophila alpestrisNativeS5?BYellowNot Listed
Eremophila alpestris merrilliNativeS3?BlueNot Listed
Eremophila alpestris strigataNativeSXBRedE (May 2018)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Notes

Read the fact sheet for this species in BC’s Coast Region: Species & Ecosystems of Conservation Concern.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References


Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-04-22 9:55:43 AM]
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