A Rare Common Bird: The Streaked Horned Lark

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This male Streaked Horned Lark was photographed at Baskett Slough NWR west of Salem, Oregon on 28 March 2009. Note the extensive yellow and the diffuse brown streaking below the black breast band and the fairly dark brown upperparts.

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Unless they are looking towards you, female Streaked Horned Larks can disappear into the surrounding landscape. This well-camouflaged bird was photographed at Baskett Slough NWR in Oregon's Mid-Willamette Valley 28 March 2009.

The Horned Lark is among the most wide-spread species in the Northern Hemisphere. It inhabits short grass prairies, deserts, coastal dunes, and agricultural lands throughout the Holarctic Region and is familiar to those who enjoy open country birding in North America. Like many wide-ranging species, it exhibits extensive geographic variation. There are 21 recognized subspecies in North America (Beason 1995). Horned Larks--called Shore Larks in Europe and Asia--are highly variable in terms of the amount of yellow on the breast, throat, and face. They also show substantial variation in back color, which often approximates the local soil color (Phillips 1964).

It is well known that populations of birds dependent on native short-grass ecosystems are in decline across much of North America. Over the last century, human encroachment and conversion to agriculture have dramatically reduced these habitats. Among the birds most impacted by these losses is the “Streaked” Horned Lark (A. a. strigata). Historically, the breeding range of this subspecies extended from southern British Columbia to Northern California and it was a common to abundant nester throughout western Oregon’s Willamette Valley (Altman 2003).

More recently its range has contracted and today Streaked Horned Larks no longer breed in B.C., Washington’s Puget Trough (from Tacoma north), or the Rogue Valley in southwestern Oregon (Pearson and Altman 2005). The remaining population likely numbers fewer than 1400 birds (Altman pers. comm.). Current breeding activity is mostly confined to the southern Willamette Valley and a few sandy islands along the lower Columbia River. Additional nestings have been documented along the Washington’s outer coast and in the Puget lowlands (Pearson and Altman 2005).

For more than a decade researchers have been closely monitoring this fragile population and working to develop management strategies that will maintain and increase suitable habitat on both public and private lands. Hopefully these efforts will turn the tide. The summer songs and the wonderful hues of this subspecies, among the most colorful of all Horned Larks, would surely be missed by this author. 


Literature cited:

Altman, Bob. 2003. Horned Lark. Pp. 425-428  in Birds of Oregon: A General Reference. D.B. Marshall, M.G. Hunter, and A.L. Contreras, Eds. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR.

Beason, Robert C. 1995. Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/195.

Pearson, S.F., and B. Altman. 2005. Range-wide Streaked Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris strigata) Assessment and Preliminary Conservation Strategy. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, WA. 25pp.

Phillips, A. 1964. Horned Lark. Pages 93-95 in The birds of Arizona. (Phillips, A., J. Marshall, and G. Monson, Eds.) Univ. of Arizona Press, Tucson.

All photos taken by David Irons.

1

Great article…it reminds me that I need to pay attention to even those species that are commonplce (i.e. Horned Larks) and appreciate the subtle (and not so subtle) differences between them.

2

Thanks for the Streaked Horned Lark piece. I spent a season monitoring Streaked Horned Larks on a Columbia River island. The Army Corps of Engineers has created most of their habitat on the river – the sandy dredge spoils dumped as a part of their shipping channel maintenance become decent “prairie” for the larks after a few years. If the Corps deposited spoils with the larks in mind (for example, dumping on older dredge spoil sites dominated by scotch broom), they could bolster the small lark population. Unfortunately, the new channel deepening project has necessitated more dumping of spoils, and the Corps have frequently buried active nests under several feet of new sand. Many former nesting areas have been rendered unusable for a few years. I’m still hoping that the Corps might try some of the land management practices you referred to. How often can the Corps of Engineers make an honest claim to help an endangered species?

3

I am definitely a lark. (Writing this at 4:30 AM, and for me, that comes at the gbienning of the day, not the end.) When you reach the point of having a 9:00 PM, or earlier, bedtime, you’re definitely in the range where such habits seem quite eccentric in a thirty-year-old man.And this fits pretty well. I am mostly oriented towards the Near kind of thinking and values, and towards an almost bee-like devotion to whatever my current set of habits happen to be. But at the same time, I also identify with the Owls who will stay up late, party, and think creatively; I can be like them, and such friendships as I form are likely to be with them. So yeah, I have owl tendencies, but the lark in me usually wins.

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