Horned Lark in Carden

Ron Pittaway

First published in Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, February 2020, No 294

Horned Lark by Jean Iron


One of the charms of early spring is the Horned Lark’s tinkling song coming from the ground or from high overhead in the clear blue sky. The Horned Lark gets its name from the short black feather tufts on its head. Formerly more common, it is now an uncommon to rare breeder on the Carden Alvar.


IDENTIFICATION: Adults have a yellow throat, black breast band and mask, and usually inconspicuous "horns" (erectile feathers) which are more distinct on males. During the breeding season, the tiny black "horns" are erected in display. The spotted juvenile plumage is quite unlike the adult and has often tempted birders to think they have found a rare pipit or longspur. Pipits and longspurs are not found in summer in southern Ontario.


VOICE: The Horned Lark is best detected by its song. It sings its tinkling song from the ground, boulder or a post and when “skylarking” high overhead against a clear blue sky. The flight call is a pe-seet.


HABITAT: It prefers sparse short grass fields and heavily grazed pastures with bare ground where it walks (not hops) and runs on the ground.


HABITS: The first migrants arrive in February and are usually seen along weedy gravel roadsides when the snow covers the fields. Staying mainly on the ground, they can be difficult to find after the snow is gone unless heard singing or spotted calling in flight. Probably because of their early nesting season, Horned Larks are rarely parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds.


SUBSPECIES: The subspecies breeding in southern Ontario is the “Prairie” Horned Lark. See Pittaway (2014) for additional information on other Ontario subspecies and their identification.


CONSERVATION: The “Prairie” Horned Lark was formerly more common in Ontario and is declining. Habitat losses due to more intensive agriculture and reforestation are causes, but other causes are not fully known. A reduction in insect diversity and populations is possibly a significant factor. Horned Larks and other grassland birds feed insects to their young because they need protein for rapid growth. The Horned Lark was more common on the Windmill and Cameron Ranches in the past when they were heavily grazed by cattle. The ranches are now part of Carden Alvar Provincial Park with managed lighter grazing. The tiny population of Horned Larks in Carden might not exist without some grazing.


BEST PLACES: Watch along Wylie Road from just north of the cabin proceeding north to the viewing blind. Check also from the parking lot at Cameron Ranch. You may find a Horned Lark.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank Michel Gosselin for information and proofing and Jean Iron for the photo.


REFERENCE: Pittaway, R. 2014. Subspecies of the Horned Lark. http://jeaniron.ca/2014/hlark.htm