Flight Lines: The most common bird no one knows
That there exists a widespread and common bird under the collective noses of North Dakotans yet few have ever heard of it is not entirely surprising. After all, I could probably create a respectable list of such species. That few residents have ever noticed what I consider to be the most numerous bird during the North Dakota summers, however, does raise some eyebrows.
What makes the horned lark (Eremophila alpestris) so endearing to birders is its singular claim of being the first migrant to show up in the area after the deepest depth of our long winters. As annual as a solstice, sometime during the cold month of February, these diminutive birds suddenly appear along rural roads. They seem to carry the longed-for message that, despite the conditions, spring will eventually appear. Theirs is a welcome arrival, one that sets the table for the rest of the spring, one that invites bird seekers to stir from their winter stupor and start paying attention again.
I found myself in Williston last week for a few hours, long enough to savor the mid-50s temperatures and take a stroll around Spring Lake Park. At intervals of perhaps 15 minutes, the sky would sound with distinct, high-pitched, jumbled choruses of notes. Flocks of horned larks were overhead, winging north, giving their flight calls, sounding like someone shaking a crystal chandelier. Ornithologist George Sutton once described the voice of the horned lark as a “sweet and delicate tinkling.” Regardless of how one interprets it, it is one of the notable sounds of open country that veritably defines the place during the warmer months.
This is a species found throughout the Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic (in summer) south to North Africa, central Asia and central Mexico. Oddly there is also an outlying population in the east Andes of Columbia. Numerous subspecies have been defined throughout the world including as many as 21 in North America alone. There exists so much intraspecies variability and clinal changes across the various populations as to render a firm accounting of the lines separating them nearly impossible to lay down. It is, however, an interesting exercise to note the differences as a person moves about the country.
Regardless of location, this is a bird with a penchant for wide skies. Coasts, mountain meadows, deserts, prairies, even metropolitan airports, all potentially host populations of horned larks. Sprinkle trees into the landscape and the bird becomes absent. It’s one that apparently needs to see unhindered to the horizons. That makes North Dakota a fine host for this holarctic species.
Mostly absent during December and January, horned larks have now returned where they will establish pair bonds and nesting territories in virtually every square mile of suitable habitat in this state. The species is quite tolerant of disturbance so unlike some rarer prairie species like Baird’s sparrow, horned larks will be found in plowed fields, in small grain fields, near the edges of ditches or virtually anywhere scant vegetation exists. It’s this trait that makes the bird so numerous during its breeding season.
There is a reason I claim few people have noticed this bird. It’s not one to be found in the Burger King parking lot, it’s not going to show up at your feeder in town, it’s not a big colorful in-your-face bird. It’s simply one of those nondescript rural species that goes ignored by the motoring public. A slower approach with an attentive eye on the road shoulders, even stopping to look and listen; these are the tools for seeing horned larks.
Once a good view is achieved, it’s not soon forgotten. It’s not its body that will stick out, it being a dim sandy brown more suited for blending into the earth. But the head area of a male horned lark is singular. A tidy black bib separates a white breast from a white-to-yellow throat. A heavy black patch runs from the bird’s bill, through its eye, down the side of the throat in an almost Zorro-esque mask. Above a white eyebrow is a black headband across its forehead ending in feathered “horns” on either end.
Just five minutes ago (it’s Monday as I type), I stepped out of an airplane at the Dickinson airport. The first sound I heard was a rather close male horned lark sitting atop a short remnant pile of snow singing like only horned larks can sing. He’s on territory already, awaiting a mate. Until late fall, this largely ignored but omnipresent species will be with us, singing with effervescence across most of the state.
Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for
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