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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The horned lark's "horns" are actually feathers. (PHOTO BY KATHY 
A few weeks back this column dismantled the widely-held belief that robins are a sign of spring, exposing it for what it is – a myth. Those red-breasted birds are with us all winter, just in lesser numbers and hidden from view for most of us.

That left some people wondering just what do I consider to be the first sign of spring?

That would be none other than the rather strange, even dangerous, mating ritual of the horned lark.

What is a horned lark?

The horned lark is the New World’s only true lark, which is amazing given that there are 90 species of larks in the Eastern Hemisphere.

It is a rather small, ground dwelling bird. Coming in at 7 or 8 inches, it’s not much larger than a sparrow (although more streamlined and less chubby in appearance). From a distance — which is normally how they are observed since they are rather skittish — they appear just as plain as sparrow, a drab light brown.

But, when you look at them through field glasses, you are in for a surprise. Larks are actually quite attractive.

They have a black stripe through the eye, a black crescent on the upper chest, and two black horns (which are really feathers) that account for their name. Mixed in between those wisps of black are facial and forehead colorations that range from ghost white to bright yellow.

Where do they live?

Larks can be found all year long across Eastern Niagara County, often in good numbers, frequenting spacious fields and, in the winter, roadsides and golf courses. They prefer mostly barren habitats; that is, they like the ground to be plant-free or having plants shorter than 3 inches in height. So, as crops and weeds get too tall, they will vacate the area, moving on to other fields, only to return once a field is plowed.

In the winter months, you will see them in especially large flocks of 12 to 30 birds. From now till July, they will be in flocks of 6 birds or fewer, which is typically a family.

What is the status of the horned lark? 

Despite being pretty common on this end of the county, they aren’t on the western side of the county or most of upstate (except Orleans, Genesee, and Wyoming Counties). In the downstate area, their numbers have really plummeted. This is all due to the de-emphasis of farming in certain areas of the state and the reforestation of farms, which takes away the larks’ habitat. Nationally, their numbers have decreased by 62 percent since 1966.

Because of that, horned larks are a species of special concern in New York State, the third-in-line category when it comes to assessing the health of an animal’s population in the state. Species of special concern warrant attention and consideration but current information, collected by the Department of Environmental Conservation, does not justify listing these species as either endangered or threatened.

I’ve always approached such rankings for this and other grasslands bird with a little trepidation. Wide open grasslands did not exist in any volume across upstate New York before the Europeans came; the area was just a gigantic forest. The larks came to be in this region because of Man. They weren’t naturally occurring. So, is Mother Nature only seeking her preferred equilibrium now?

When do they breed?

Horned Larks have the unique distinction of being New York’s earliest nesting songbird. They are nesting now, even as snow covers half of the local fields on which they build their nests.

That’s not unusual for them, as they have been known to nest as early as February. Since March storms are occasional occurrences, horned larks compensate for Old Man Winter’s ruination of early batches of eggs and/or decimation of hatchlings by having up to 3 broods a year. They breed so early in the year that most young birds have left the nest by the time the first plows come around.

What about that mating ritual?

The mating ritual mentioned at the beginning of this article is bizarre and death-defying.

The male horned lark will rocket high into the air, 500 to 800 feet up. While ascending, he will sing a rather neat tinkling or bubbling song. Once that song stops, he brings his wings into his body and goes into total freefall. Since his wings are not out to slow down his fall, gravity will have full effect and he will fall at incredible speeds, speeds at which you’ve never seen a bird move.

As you watch this, you think that the bird is going to die by splatting on the ground. But he doesn’t ... when he’s mere feet from the ground he will spread his wings, instantly right himself and land on his feet rather softly. I’ve seen this many times and I still don’t know how they do it.

Probably happy that he didn’t die and proud that he could impress his potential mate, the male horned lark then puffs out his chest and saunters around the female with both of his horns outstretched or erect like devil’s horns.

If you head out to a local winter wheat field this week, just an hour or so before sunset, you might see this strange ritual. It’s neat no matter how often you see it, as each time you expect that the male horned lark will die, but he doesn’t.

It just shows that men will do dangerous things to impress women, even in the animal world.

But, I guess the larks have proved you have to be a little “horny” in the first place to want to do something like that.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where watching horned lark rituals is like watching NASCAR, you only do it for the crashes. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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