LARKS Alaudidae The Larks are a large family of ground-dwelling birds, most of them in open country habitats from desert to grassland to stony steppe. Larks are primarily Old World birds, and their center of distribution is in Africa (67 species, 52 of which are endemic to Africa). Over a third of the world's larks are in the genus Mirafra: often chunky, red-winged, buffy grassland birds of which the Red-winged Lark (left) of east Africa is an example. I must confess that when I took this photo in Kenya in 1981, and using the field guide available (Williams & Arlott 1980), I misidentified this bird as a "Flappet Lark M. rufocinnamomea." I've re-identified it as several things over the years, but only with the publication of Zimmerman et al. (1996) did I get this one correct. Note particularly the scaly back pattern and the neat anchor-shaped interior markings on the outer scaps and tertials (recalling similar patterns on juv. Red Knot or Curlew Sandpiper). My problems with this bird -- despite taking a decent enough photo -- illustrates just how poorly the identification of larks has been treated in the literature in the past.

Only one species of lark is found widely outside the Old World, and it nests on all larger continents (missing in Australia & Antarctica). It is the Horned Lark (right), a bird which is at home in open spaces from the tundra shores of Canada to the open grasslands of the Great Plains to the high meadows of the Andes. There are numerous subspecies; this adult is of the colorful cinnamon-backed Monterey County breeding race E. a. actia. It is called the "Shore Lark" in Europe, but the English name "Horned Lark" is a good one, and you can see the short feathered "horn" on the side of the crown in this shot.

Because they hide in grassland and open country, most larks tend to be muted in coloring, varying among grays and brown to buffy-pink, except the sparrow-larks (genus Eremopterix) which can be strongly patterned in blacks, whites, and chestnuts. What they lack in plumage, many of the larks make up in vocal abilities. The Sky Lark Alauda arvensis of Eurasia is known for its songs, cascading down from high in the sky, from dawn to dusk. [Because of its song (and because it is mentioned in Shakespeare), the nominate European race has been introduced widely, including to Vancouver I., British Columbia, Canada.] Many of the Mirafra larks sing while hovering high over the grasslands; the widespread Mirafra from north Africa to India is called the Singing Bushlark M. cantilans (fairly recently split from the Australasian Bushlark M. javanica which ranges from southeast Asia to Australia). The Red-winged Lark (top left photo) mimics numerous other species, incorporating calls of 20 other species in a 15-minute song in Tsavo West park, Kenya (Keith et al. 1992). John McAllister tells me that the South African endemic (except for a small isolated population in central Zimbabwe) Melodious Lark  M. cheniana deserves mention. It's been called "Singing Bush Lark," "Southern Singing Bush Lark" and "Latakoo Lark." It has been recorded imitating at least 57 species "including francolins, guinea fowl, plovers, coursers, louries, cuckoos, bee-eaters, swifts, larks, swallows, chats, warblers, pipits, longclaws, shrikes, starlings, sunbirds, ploceids, waxbills and canaries" (Maclean 1984). McAllister says that in the breeding season it sings in flight or continuously from a perch and is "quite wonderful to hear."

Another set of larks are desert-adapted species, ranging from the impressive thrasher-billed Greater Hoopoe-Lark Alaemon alaudipes of north Africa to west India to the various short-toed larks (genus Calandrella) who are camouflaged among arid steppes. Below is a small gallery of variations in the larks of eastern & south Africa: Pink-breasted Lark (top left), Pink-billed Lark (top right), Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark (bottom left), and Rufous-naped Lark (bottom right). If nothing else, note the variety in size of bills among this group.
 

Of these four, Rufous-naped Lark is by far the most widespread, occurring widely in south & east Africa where it is often the "standard" lark to learn. The photo (bottom right of the four above) of it standing on a rock shows the long hind claw common to many larks. [Chersomanes albofasciata has a remarkably long one and bears the great name "Spike-heeled Lark."] The Pink-breasted Lark (upper left) is nearly a Kenyan endemic in lightly wooded savanna, its range barely spilling over into corners of Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Tanzania. The Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark is also an east African endemic but its range is centered in Somalia, just leaking west into eastern Kenya where it has displaced Fischer's Sparrow-Lark Eremopterix leucopareia in Tsavo East Nat'l Park since the 1960s (my photo is from Tsavo East in 1981). The Pink-billed Lark has a reasonably extensive range in southern Africa, but is "shy and not easy to see" (Keith et al. 1992) in its short grass/fallow field habitat. In the high tablelands of the Transvaal, it sometimes occurs in flocks with the local and uncommon Botha's Lark Spizocorys fringillaris, a South Africa endemic. [The Pink-billed Lark in my photo was in a flock that included a few Botha's.] The two species are rather similar in appearance and the field guides & handbooks give contradictory marks (e.g., the face pattern shown in my photo is painted in the plate in Keith et al. 1992 for Botha's and not for Pink-billed, but the text gives this complex facial pattern to Pink-billed). Indeed, there is so much contradictory information published on the Pink-billed vs. Botha's problem that I am not entirely sure this slide is correctly labelled (comments welcome).

A good number of larks are very local and some are rare to endangered. These include Ash's Lark Mirafra ashi (known only from six specimens taken in Somalia; surely the last place a birder would visit now), the Degodi Lark M. degodiensis and the Sidamo Lark Heteromirafra sidamoensis (both known from only a couple of specimens in Ethiopia), Archer's Lark H. archeri (restricted to a tiny strip of grasslands of only 200 sq.km. in northwest Somalia), and two larks endemic to small strips of coastal dunes: Dune Lark Certhilauda erythrochlamys of Namibia and Obbia Lark Spizocorys obbiensis of Somalia. For Rudd's Lark M. ruddi, a Transvaal endemic, 85% or more of the world population occurs within 100 km of the towns of Wakkerstroom and Memel in the high altitude (between 1600-1800 m) of eastern South Africa (Harrison et al. 1997). Clearly, anyone trying to see all the larks of the world will have a very difficult time.

Identification problems: There are many interesting identification problems among the larks, and between larks and other cryptic birds. One that is often overlooked is that presented by juvenal-plumaged Horned Larks which have been reported as numerous vagrant species of one ilk or another; a good discussion is in Lehman (1997). Perhaps the most famous debacle in California birding history was the state's first reported "Smith's Longspur" in 1979 -- chased and misidentified by most of the state's premier birders (including me) -- which proved to be an even better bird: California's first vagrant Sky Lark from Siberia (it was shown to be one of the northeastern Asian races). This individual returned to Pt. Reyes for the next six consecutive winters. Details of this fascinating detective story and the eventual unambiguous solution appear in Morlan & Erickson (1983). On-line, Joe Morlan posted shots of the Pt. Reyes lark and the state's actual first Smith's Longspur as a side-by-side photo quiz that still stumped many visitors who did not know the story of California's Sky Lark; you can see those photos on Joe Morlan's site HERE. My own detailed account of the event, retrieved from my field notes, appears in Joe Morlan's guestbook, but you will have to scroll down to the discussion of this photo quiz (bypassing the more recent discussion) to find it [and it will disappear eventually as more comments are added to the front of the guestbook].

Photos: The Red-winged Lark Mirafra hypermetra was in Tsavo West Nat'l Park, Kenya, on 26 Nov 1981. The Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris was photographed in Cholame Valley, Monterey Co., California, on 23 Feb 1982. The Pink-breasted Lark Mirafra poecilosterna was in Samburu Nat'l Park, Kenya; the Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark Eremopterix signata in Tsavo East Nat'l Park, Kenya; and the Rufous-naped Lark Mirafra africana in Masai Mara Nat'l Park, Kenya, all in Nov 1981. The Pink-billed Lark Spizocorys conirostris was near Wakkerstroom, Transvaal, South Africa, on 26 July 1996. All photos © D. Roberson.; all rights reserved.

Special thanks to John McAllister of Wakkerstroom, South Africa, for comments to an earlier version of this page.

Bibliographic note

There is no family book, or, if there is, I have not seen it. Despite some problems with the artwork, the Birds of Africa series (Keith et al. 1992) is quite useful for many of the world's larks, and the new East African guide by Zimmerman et al. (1996) is very good.

Other literature cited:

Harrison, J. A., D. G. Allan, L. G. Underhill, M. Herremans, A. J. Tree, V. Parker, and C. J. Brown, eds. 1997. The Atlas of Southern African Birds. Vol 2: Passerines.  BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Keith, S., E. K. Urban, and C. H. Fry, eds. 1992. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 4. Academic Press, London.

Lehman, P. 1997. Identification pitfalls: juvenile Horned Lark. Birding 29: 333-334.

Maclean, G. L., ed. 1984. Robert's Birds of Southern Africa (5th ed.). John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town, South Africa.

Morlan, J., and Erickson, R. A. 1983. An Eurasian Skylark at Pt. Reyes, California, with notes on skylark identification and systematics. W. Birds 14: 113-126.

Williams, J. G., and N. Arlott. 1980. A Field Guide of the Birds of East Africa. Collins, London.

Zimmerman, D. A., D. A. Turner, and D. J. Pearson. 1996. Birds of Kenya and northern Tanzania. Christopher Helm, London.

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