I want to declare my own winner for a slightly different competition- Grumpy bird of the year (which the burrowing owl might have had a shot at winning). That's right, the horned lark is the world's grumpiest-looking bird.
I'm sure that this statement will get me into hot water amongst birders and will bring out comments about owls, swallows, boat-billed herons, and pretty much any passerine nestling. But, with his black lores and cheek patches forming a cartoonish frowny-face, and what appears to be an 18th-century handlebar mustache on his head, the male horned lark above is about as grumpy-looking as a bird can be. If anything, the horned lark has a pretty habitual 'Not- Impressed' look on his face. Possibly not to the point that it can compete with the grumpy cat, but, for a bird, these guys are pretty surly looking.
I can't help but giggle every time I look at these pictures!
Horned larks are found throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere and are the only species of lark in North America. They are happiest in open farmland and grassland, and in North America they are generally found in the West, but spread East in the late 1800s and early 1900s as forests were cleared for agricultural land (see the last post for an occurrence map from eBird). A ground-nesting species, these birds weave a nest in a depression that they sometimes create themselves, then lay a clutch of 2-5 eggs that are incubated for about 10-12 days. A nest was once recorded with 8 eggs. Chicks can leave the nest at as early as 12 days, but may not fly yet and still rely on their parents for food. Pairs commonly have 2 or more clutches per year. Nests built in agricultural fields are sometimes destroyed by farm equipment.
The video below gives you an idea of the character that these little guys have- showing males singing on their territories and their expressive use of the mustache-like crests on top of their heads. These birds can go from looking confused to happy to grumpy in a matter of seconds. I love it!
Horned larks fall into a difficult category when it comes to their role in agriculture. Because they feed on insects in the spring and summer while raising young, they are likely to reduce and suppress pest insect populations and therefore help reduce insect damage to crops. On the other hand, because adults also consume grain and some plant material, there is a good chance that they can damage crops themselves. Its birds like these that I'm doing my research for.
A recent University of California extension survey found that farmers list horned larks as a species that they are concerned about, and that they want more research to be done on these birds. Fortunately, horned larks have been spotted at plenty of farms in the central valley- where I am hoping to do my fieldwork- so I should be able to start shedding some light on their impact on crops as part of the larger bird communities on farms.
Baldwin, R. A. et al. 2011. Vertebrate pest “research needs” assessment for California agricultural commodities. Final report for Vertebrate Pest Control Research Advisory Committee.
Beason, R. C. 1995. Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris). In The Birds of North America, No. 195 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists Union, Washington, D.C.
Boyd, R. L. 1976. Behavioral biology and energy expenditure in a Homed Lark population. Dissertation. Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA.
York et al. 2000. Evaluation of Flight ControlTM and Mesurolt as repellents to reduce horned lark (Eremophila alpestris) damage to lettuce seedlings. Crop Protection.