The Barren Ground Songbird

Horned larks, the only true larks in North America, are summer residents across the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada and permanent residents across most of the contiguous U.S.  Favoring barren grasslands, they inhabit flat beaches, Arctic and alpine tundra, short-grass prairies, fallow fields, floodplains, sage parklands of the Intermountain West and mowed grasslands along highways and airport runways.

These hardy songbirds are among the most common residents in open country, tolerating both intense heat and frigid winds.  Easily identified by their distinctive facial markings and their black tail with white edging, they are usually seen in large flocks, often feeding with longspurs, lark buntings and grassland sparrows.  Horned larks begin to nest in late winter and may raise three broods by early autumn; nests of fine grass are placed on the ground in a shallow depression.  Adults feed primarily on seeds but may consume insects during the warmer months and usually feed insects to their young.

Horned larks are best observed along country roads, especially dirt-gravel roads that cross fields with sparse vegetation.  While we generally associate these birds with open grasslands and windswept beaches, they are also among the more common species found on the alpine tundra of western mountain ranges.