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Horned Lark

Horned lark pair
Photo by Barbara Saunders

Scientific name: Eremophila alpestris

New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed


The horned lark is a small songbird (6-7.75 inches) named for its horn-like feather tufts which are most often visible on male. They are easily distinguished by their dominant black lores, cheek patches, and breast patch. These contrast strikingly with the white to yellow eyebrow stripe, ear patches, and chin. Males are slightly larger and darker than females with color variations throughout North America relating to habitat moisture levels. The back, rump, nape, and dorsal (upper) side of the tail feathers are a brownish gray with the breast and belly light brown to white. Juveniles are distinguished from adults by dusky facial features, lighter overall coloration, a buff yellow bill, and flesh-colored legs and feet.

Life History

The horned lark is the earliest nesting, native non-raptor bird species in New York State with nesting reported as early as late February. Nests are constructed on the ground with the site selected by the female. The nest is typically in a small depression and is made of grasses, roots, and hair. It is often lined by small by pebbles on its outer rim. Incubation is done entirely by the female and begins after the last egg is laid.

map showing the horned lark's year round range throughout the United States
Horned lark range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Young typically hatch on the same day and are covered in a buff-colored down which offers some protection from the elements and helps camouflage them from predators. Two or more clutches a season are common for much of this species range. Both the male and female feed nestlings and fledging occurs at 8 to 10 days. They primarily feed on invertebrates and seeds.

Distribution and Habitat

The breeding range for this species is vast extending north to south from the arctic islands to central Mexico. This species is found year round throughout much of its range with northern populations migrating to central or southern parts of the breeding range during the winter months. It was likely uncommon in the northeast before the settlement and clear cutting that took place in the 19th century. Occupies areas with short grasses and/or barren ground. Tolerates disturbance and agricultural practices well.

Nests are commonly located in:

  • row crops
  • hayfields
  • short grass prairie
  • deserts


In New York, the horned lark occupies low land areas across the state including the Great Lakes Plains, Appalachian Plateau, and the Costal Lowlands. The second atlas results yielded a 37 percent decline in detection for this species. While it continues to occupy the same areas, its distribution within these areas has become patchy with the most notable loses in the Appalachian Plateau and Costal Lowlands. This species is experiencing declines throughout much of its range and is listed as a Threatened species in Connecticut.

Map of Horned Lark in New York
Distribution of horned lark in New York from
1st and 2nd NYS Breeding Bird Atlas records.

Management and Research Needs

The horned lark would benefit from grassland management efforts. Research assessing this species response to habitat restoration at disturbed locations (e.g. reclaimed mines) may also be beneficial. Research on geographic variations of the species is also needed.