Horned larks are members of a large family of larks, but you’d never know it if you were only focused on American birds. Larks are an Old World family that has the vast bulk of species in Eurasia and Africa, with only Horned Larks as a representative in North America. The family includes the Skylarks (genus Alauda), the Calandra Larks (genus Melanocorypha), and the Desert larks (Ammomanes), among others. Horned larks are known as Shore larks in much of Eurasia, and are one of the few larks to breed in the tundra of Europe and Siberia. This trait apparently allowed them to invade our continent, probably over the Bering Land Bridge around the same time that humans migrated to North America. They are still common breeders in the arctic tundra, as well as above tree-line in most western mountain ranges; most of our winter Larks are birds from the Canadian arctic.
Horned Larks’ invasion of North America has been very successful. They now inhabit virtually the entire continent, nesting in virtually every state except Florida. (My own memories of Larks from growing up in Florida were that they were rare, prized vagrants to beaches during winter.) This success is almost certainly the result of human transformation of the landscape. Larks love the wide open fields created by human agriculture. They forage in the fields and nest in grassy borders to these same fields. This is reflected in the fact that they were not original natives of primeval Ohio. Records show that Horned Larks were strictly migrants and winter visitors to the state before the 1880s, and their colonization of the state after that time correlates with the expansion of large-scale corn farming and industrial agriculture into the state. The small farm plots of pre-industrial-revolution Ohio would not have held much attraction to Horned Larks; in a very real sense, their colonization was enabled by John Deere and International Harvester.
With their ability to nest and feed in tundra-like conditions, Horned larks are able to breed very early in the year, often setting up territories by March. Their subtle coloration, which offers excellent camouflage in open fields, does not make for much of a visual display. Instead, adult male Larks advertise their presence by ‘skylarking’ – flying up into the air and singing on the wing during a spiraling descent. Their song is a beautiful series of tinkling notes and is not easy to localize. It’s very different from the thin short ‘see….tui’ call notes that they use to keep a flock together. Later, as their territories and mates are settled, they will sing more from the ground. The female lays 3-5 eggs in a grass- and feather-lined scrape in the ground, and incubates for 11-12 days. The nestlings, though born altricial, grow and develop quickly to fledging. Multiple broods are common, helping to explain the seemingly endless supply of larks on Ohio’s fields.
For inhabitants of open fields, larks are surprisingly hardy, often being one of our last birds to migrate in the Fall and one of the first ones to migrate in the Spring. They seem immune to the cold, and will even forage roadside edges for windblown seeds if the snow covers their fields. In Fall, large flocks of larks are often still migrating into December, and many birds only move south when the snow becomes too thick for effective foraging. The Lark numbers on central Ohio Christmas Bird Counts vary wildly, depending on weather and snowfall, and the Delaware CBC even offers a tongue-in-cheek Horned lark award each year to the participant who can guess closest to the correct number of Larks found on the count. As temperatures moderate in late winter, flocks of Larks start heading back north, usually starting in February. At that time, you can hear calling larks flying north overhead on almost any clear day, one of the first real signs that winter is on the wane.
Where can you see them in central Ohio? Basically, get out of town. Any large flat open field will have a few; the more open the area, the better your chances of finding them. Airports are great spots to find larks, and Port of Columbus, Rickenbacker Airport, Bolton Field, Don Scott Field, and the Pickaway County Airfield all have a few. Other nearby open areas that usually have some are along Miller Paul Rd (east of Hoover Reservoir), Beatty Rd (south of Grove City), Darby Creek Drive, and the far western sections of Hayden Run & Rings Roads west of Hilliard and Dublin. A few birds remain to breed in all of these locations, but they are harder to see in late Spring and Summer except when they are singing. There’s really no time when you can’t find Horned larks somewhere locally.