Larks of the Platte River

While driving around looking for Sandhill Cranes feeding in the corn fields a week ago, we spotted a couple of lark species (not closely related species actually — they just happen to have “lark” in their common names).

Horned Lark

Horned Larks are the only true larks in North America. The “horns” are just longer feathers on the back of the male’s crown that tend to ruffle up in the wind. Females are browner overall and usually lack the dark black cap.

Horned Lark panting on a hot day

It was a very warm and still in the middle of the day, and this little bird was sitting by the side of the road panting to stay cool. Notice how the bird has drooped its wings and is holding them out to the side to increase air flow through its body to dissipate heat. Facing directly into the sun to expose those reflective white breast feathers also cuts down on the heat gain from solar radiation.

Horned Larks are one of the earliest nesting species, often losing a nest full of eggs to a late winter snow storm.  They seem to be really adaptable, hearty birds, breeding from low desert to high altitude (as high as 13,000 feet), over an expansive range from southern Mexico to northern Alaska.  Despite their wide geographic range, Horned Larks seem to prefer the geography and climate of the place they were raised (like many humans I know), so those that migrate south to avoid the harsh Canadian and Alaskan winters return to exactly the same spot to breed each year.

Meadowlarks are not larks at all, but are members of the Blackbird family. Their name seems to suit them, as they are most often found in grassy meadows or fields and “sing like a lark”.

Eastern Meaadowlark male and female-

Although they tend to move around somewhat hidden in the tall grasses, males often perch on higher ground to sing, proclaiming their territory to other males, and advertising their virility to local females.  In fact, the brightest and best singing males may have attracted more than one nesting female to their territory.

Meaadowlark male

The meadowlarks were also engaging in a little open-mouth panting in the bright noon sun.

Eastern Meaadowlark male

This is most likely an Eastern Meadowlark male, but you would have to hear its song to differentiate it from the Western Meadowlark which looks almost identical, but sounds quite different.

The geographic ranges of Eastern and Western Meadowlarks overlap slightly in this area of central Nebraska, but the two species keep their amorous efforts strictly within species boundaries, based on their song preferences, so there is no hybridization between them.  Males of the two species may even compete with each other for the best territories, making sure to exclude the other species’ females as well.

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