In the East, where I was raised, it was the arrival of the American robin that was widely considered one of the first signs of spring.
In the West, the Capistrano cliff swallows have long claimed that distinction.
Though both robins and swallows are relatively early spring arrivals in the northern Great Plains, it is the horned larks that always precede them by a month or more, scratching out a living along roadsides as they await snowmelt to expose bare patches in prairies or agricultural fields.
Although there are 91 species in the lark family worldwide, horned larks are the only lark species native to North America.
They are unique in having short feather tufts on the side of the head, hence the name “horned” larks. If you live in town or in a forested site, chances are you will never encounter one of these attractive songbirds. They are strictly birds of open landscapes with very short vegetation. Historically, they inhabited natural prairie, tundra and desert habitats. But, as agricultural areas gradually replaced forests in eastern North America during the 19th century, horned larks found many such sites to their liking and their range eventually spread all the way to the Atlantic Coast. If you live on or grew up on a farm or in the prairies, you are probably familiar with this species, even if you may not have been sure what they were.
Aside from frequenting roadsides in wintry conditions, horned larks are most evident during the courtship period preceding nesting. Males fly up from the ground at a steep angle in a spiral pattern until they are just tiny specks at 700 to 800 feet. Then they glide slowly down with wings and tail spread while giving a distinctive, tinkling song before ascending again and repeating the display.
The normal flight of the horned lark is also distinctive, because, after three to four normal wing beats, they close their wings to the body for the time of one to two wing beats. Although this is kind of subtle, it is just different enough from the flight pattern of other songbirds that, with practice, you can learn to identify them at a distance by this characteristic alone.
When you’re driving through agricultural country (like the Hubbard Prairie) this March, when these larks are apt to be along the roadside, watch how birds that you flush fly. Think about the pattern described above and maybe you will begin to add flight pattern to what you already know about bird behavior. Open your mind to the real possibility of being able to identify birds by behavior, without the aid of a field guide.
I should add that horned larks are a bit larger than juncos (which also can congregate along roadsides). But the juncos are much darker with strong white outer tail feathers, have a normal fast and consistent flap pattern very unlike the larks’ slower flap and non-flap flight, and are less apt to be in agricultural habitats.
Marshall Howe is a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He specialized in bird population studies. Howe has been a Park Rapids resident since 2010.