When there is snow on the ground, as has been the case in Big Valley the last few days, small flocks of horned larks (Eremophila alpestris) hug the ground at the edges of the roads. I think they do this for two reasons. First, as ground feeders that eat weed seeds, the horned larks can find food (and grit) along the plowed roadsides when fields and pastures are covered in snow. Secondly, I believe the dark-surfaced roads provide some warmth through the absorbed radiant energy of the sun. In fair weather the horned larks prefer open country, particularly barren ground and short grassy areas, and do not congregate along roads.
The only lark native to North America it can be found throughout most of the continent at some time during the year. There are 21 subspecies of horned larks, some of which winter in parts of Central America. One breeding colony of horned larks also exists near Bogata, Columbia. Although some of the subspecies are highly migratory others are resident. We have horned larks here in Big Valley all year.
This ground-dwelling bird, which walks or runs rather than hopping, is quite distinctive with its black “horns”. Horned larks are dull brownish birds with a yellow to white breast and belly. The shade of brown in the different horned lark species varies depending on the color of the soil in its local habitat. The face and throat are yellow to white, there is a black breast patch and black stripe under the eye and the bill is short. Males and females look alike, although the males are larger and darker.
These pictures of a horned lark were taken near Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA) before the snows fell. Aren’t those little horns cute? A rather “tame” bird, horned larks will permit one to approach quite near before flying away so it is easier to photograph them.