Horned Lark

Horned larks are our only native lark species in North America (meadowlarks are members of the Icterid, or blackbird, family). Horned larks are open country birds that historically were found in short cover such as short-grass prairies and the tundra; they are also found in Europe, Asia, and northern Africa.

Photo by Lloyd Bush/USFWS, Creative Commons

Photo by Lloyd Bush/USFWS, Creative Commons

We have been seeing many horned larks around Goose Pond Sanctuary especially on the drive to our residence.  These horned larks are singing and will begin nesting in March. At this time their phenology is about three weeks early.

Horned lark numbers probably increased in North America with the advance of civilization, especially in areas where forested land was replaced by cropland. It is estimated that their populations declined by an estimated 2.2 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 62 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.  Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 120 million with 62 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S.  The National Audubon Society’s 2014 State of the Birds Report listed them as a Common Bird in Steep Decline.  Loss of agricultural fields to reforestation and development, and human encroachment on the birds’ natural habitat, are factors in their decline—but the overall trend is not fully understood.

Horned larks are one of the earliest nesting birds in southern Wisconsin.  In the first breeding bird atlas, nests with eggs were found the third week in March.  They nest on the ground and in our area they nest in plowed and stubble fields, and in burned prairies.  Females incubate the eggs for 11 days and young leave the nest 10 days after hatching.  If the nests are destroyed horned larks are persistent re-nesters.

Photo by Carolyn Byers

Photo by Carolyn Byers

Their well-camouflaged nests are tricky to locate! However, the tinkling songs of the males from high overhead, referred to as “sky larking”, indicates that they are likely nesting in an area. 

In the first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas horned larks were confirmed in five of the 18 blocks in Columbia County.  In the first year of the Atlas II project horned larks were confirmed in three blocks in Columbia County.  Nests and fledged young are difficult to locate and we are planning on surveying blocks for singing males to indicate “probably” breeding.  If you would like to participate during the week in a horned lark survey (no experience necessary) contact us.  When surveying for larks we will also look for great horned owls and red-tailed hawks nests. 

Hopefully you can visit the Goose Pond area and see if you can spot their "horns" that are little tufts of feathers, visible only at close range. 

Want to volunteer? Contact our Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers: 

Mark and Sue Foote-Martin
608-333-9645; goosep@madisonaudubon.org