Formerly more common in the eastern U.S., than it is now, reforestation may be forcing the Lark Sparrow back to its more typical range in the central U.S. Lark Sparrows prefer shrub-steppe areas or edges where prairie meets woodlands.
Lark Sparrows are territorial around their nests, but generally not over a large area. Males and females are usually seen close together during the breeding season, except during incubation. Lark Sparrows are frequent hosts to Brown-headed Cowbird nest parasitism.
On this page
Description of the Lark Sparrow
The Lark Sparrow’s most distinctive feature is its face pattern, with a reddish crown and cheek patch, gray supercilium, black line in front of and behind the eye, and a black malar stripe. It has grayish-white underparts with a black central breast spot. In flight, white outer tail feathers are visible. Length: 6 in. Wingspan: 11 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles lack the distinctive face pattern and are streaked below.
Lark Sparrows inhabit open areas with scattered brush.
Lark Sparrows eat insects and seeds.
Lark Sparrows forage on the ground.
Lark Sparrows breed across much of the western two-thirds of the U.S. They winter across parts of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The population has declined in recent decades.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Lark Sparrow.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
Lark Sparrows expanded their range eastward with forest clearing, but are diminishing there with reforestation.
The male Lark Sparrow’s courtship display includes tail fanning to reveal his white outer tail feathers.
Sparrows symbolize many things, including friendship and harmony.
The song consists of clear notes followed by a series of trills and buzzes. A sharp “tink” call is given as well.
- The Lark Sparrow has a unique face pattern.Chipping Sparrow
The Chipping Sparrow has a rusty crown but different face pattern, also lacks the white outer tail feathers of the Lark Sparrow.
The Lark Sparrow’s nest is a cup of grasses and twigs and is lined with finer materials. It is placed on the ground or in a low shrub.
Number: Usually lay 3-5 eggs.
Color: Whitish with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 11-12 days, and fledge at about 9-12 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Lark Sparrow
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Lark Sparrow – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CHONDESTES GRAMMACUS (Say)
(The following subspecies are discussed in this section:
Contributed by DONALD HENRY BAEPLERHABITS
The lark sparrow is easily recognized in the field. its white outer tail markings, its white underparts with dark spots on the breast, the bold chestnut and black markings of its head, its habits of walking, of singing in flight, and of drooping its wings and spreading its tail during courtship, make it a distinctive bird. Alexander Sprunt, Jr. (1954) writes: “Seen from the front, back, or side it is a very attractive bird, and even where it is very abundant, as in central Texas, one never tires of its sprightly appearance and animated ways.”
The bird is at home in parklike areas, in abandoned fields, in brush lined pasture lands, and in completely treeless plains. It does not fear man and in the heart of its range nests abundantly near farmhouses, in city parks, and on the edges of towns. In the eastern and northern parts of its range where it is not common, it prefers open areas where bare ground or short grass is much in evidence. In southeastern Michigan where scattered pairs nest irregularly, its habitat is characterized by poorness of soil, by a scattering of saplings, and by such ground-hugging vegetation as thin grasses, foliose lichens, and by earthstar fungi (Geaster spp.).
The lark sparrow is widely distributed throughout the United States and its range extends into southern Canada. It is, however, typically a bird of the west and it is in parts of the southwest that it is truly common as a nesting bird. Two races are recognized; the eastern and nominate subspecies breeds as far west as central Minnesota, eastern Kansas, and northeastern Texas; west of these points the western race, C. g. striqatus Swainson, occurs. In the western race the chestnut head markings and the upperparts in general are paler and the back streaking is narrower. The races are much alike in color and, so far as I can determine, they are identical in behavior. L. Nelson Nichols (1936) states: “There is * * * no practical difference in the habits, song, and beauty of eastern and western birds.”
Much of the following account is based on studies I made of the lark sparrow at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station at Lake Texoma, OkIa., where the birds were abundant during the summer of 1957. David F. Parmelee of Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, Kans., helped with much of the field work. George M. Sutton of the University of Oklahoma contributed many valuable suggestions. The work was financed by a National Science Foundation grant.
Spring: The series of specimens in the University of Oklahoma collections shows the males return from the wintering grounds considerably in advance of the females. The earliest female was collected May 19; 2 March specimens and 19 taken in April are all males. G. M. Sutton recorded in his notes the arrival of a flock of about 30 singing males near Norman, Okia., on April 6. When I began my study at Lake Texoma on June 2, both sexes were plentiful in the study area.
Courtship: The male lark sparrow’s courtship involves much strutting, singing, chasing, and fighting. E. S. Cameron (1908) writes of Montana birds, “Lark Sparrows arrive early in May, and are the most pugnacious little birds I have ever seen. The cocks fight on the ground or in the air indifferently, and are then so oblivious to their surroundings that five or six fighting on the wing have nearly hit me in the face.”
T. S. Roberts (1936) remarks from Minnesota:
During the mating- and early nesting-season the male is a perfect little turkeycock, spending much time parading around on the ground with his tail fully spread and wings trailing, bubbling over with fragments of song, and seeming at times fairly bursting with emotion as he displays his charms before his mate or, vibrating with rage, dashes after some intruding male. Combats are frequent often in mid-air, when little can be made out except a whirling mass of three or four infuriated Finches darting and dashing at one another with white tailfeathers flashing on all sides and angry bits of song coming from the contestants now and again. In one such battle * * * four males were engaged, and, after a fierce and lengthy bout in the air, they all came to the ground in a perfect whirl of confused motion, and in an instant the tiny maelstrom was over.
Anne L. LeSassier writes (in litt.) of lark sparrows courting near Midland, Texas: “On Anril 29 nine males werc alternately singing and disputing in the cemetery. The disputes usually started when one of of the more aggressive birds attacked another who wandered into his territory by flying at him on the ground from a tombstone or low limb. Both then flew around the low bushes in the cemetery, often joined by other lark sparrows until as many as five might be chasing one another round and round. At the end of the chase the contestants paraded up and down the tombstones and cement curbs with heads and tails held very erect and occasionally spreading their tails to show the white outer feathers. The parading and posturing dwindled as one and another sparrow began feeding.
At Lake Texoma the males exhibit their strongest sense of territoriality early in the courtship phase of the reproductive cycle. Each male on territory challenges any other lark sparrow that approaches, advances toward it until the two are only inches apart, then raising his head and pointing his bill skyward. If the second bird is a male it responds by raising its head and elevating its bill in like manner. The two then fly at one another and rise high into the air together, frequently striking their wings against each other. They may repeat this performance seveial times before one of the two retires. I once watched two males repeat the fighting flight six times in 3 minutes before one bird gave in.
If the second bird is a female it does not posture in any way, and either ignores the advancing male or retreats. If the male is not mated, he will probably court her by strutting about on the ground hef ore her with hill pointed upward, tail fanned, and fluttering his half-opened wings. Or he may fly some 30 yards or more with rapidly beating wings, singing and spreading his tail. He sings frequently during courtship (see Voice) from the ground, in flight, or perched in trees or on wires. He sometimes sings his flight song while flying from one perch to another, but often he flies high into the air, singing the entire time, and alights again in the same spot, still singing. He is not a treetop singer like the painted hunting, for instance, and does not choose a favorite perch to sing from throughout the day, but sings from a variety of perches within his territory.
Copulation is attempted soon after the birds are paired and is performed frequently during courtship and throughout the periods of site selection and nest building. As J. C. Barlow (1960) describes it in Kansas, “the female crouches in a precopulatory or solicitation posture; the male, meanwhile having picked up a small twig, then mounts the back of the female. Copulation ensues, lasting for approximaely two seconds. Within this short passage of time the male passes the twig to the female, which turns its head slightly to facilitate the transfer to its beak. Upon completion of copulation the pair, the female still carrying the twig, flew to a distant part of the nursery and the two birds were lost from sight.”
I never observed the twig-transfer in the Oklahoma birds, but during the nest-building stage the female often held a straw in her bill while copulating. This might take place either on the ground or while she perched on a wire or branch. Apparently either sex may initiate the procedure. Several times when a pair sat side by side on a wire or branch the female suddenly fluttered her wings and raised her tail, which evidently stimulated the male, for copulation ensued immediately. Or the male may start the action by flying toward the female and hovering above her for a few seconds until she becomes receptive to him. I watched one pair make 20 attempts at copulation within 3~ minutes before it was consummated.
E. H. M. Knowles (1938) presents an interesting account of polygamy in this species near Regina, Saskatchewan. “On May 24, 1937, I again located a nest and on May 28, 1937, a second nest at least one hundred yards distant from it. On the latter date I saw the male and female copulating about twenty feet from nest no. 1, and was surprised to see a second female with wings quivering, fly close to the pair. The male then commenced to copulate alternately with the two females. This was accomplished several times and one of the females then flew to nest no. 1, while the other, when disturbed, flew immediately to nest no. 2, the site of which was clearly visible from where I was standing.” Perhaps the scarcity of birds at the edge of the species’ range encourages polygamy, which I never observed where the sparrows are plentiful in southern Oklahoma.
Nesting: Both the male and the female share in selecting the nest site. The two birds fly about examining likely spots on the ground or in small shrubs and trees. The male usually picks up a small twig or straw, carries it for a short time, and then deposits it at a suitable site. Often he drops material at a number of different places before the female selects the actual spot where she will build. As she gathers material the male either perches nearby and sings, or flies with her. Sometimes he carries a straw back and forth in his bill for a number of trips before he discards it. I never saw a male add material to the nest.
The nest site varies considerably. Florence M. Bailey (1928) states that in New Mexico the birds usually nest on the ground, but “sometimes in bushes, mesquite, or mistletoe.” Merritt Gary (1901) found nests only on the ground in Wyoming. J. M. Markle (1946) reports finding 28 nests in crevices of cliffs in California at heights of 5 to 10 feet above the ground. At the Biological Station in southern Oklahoma, the birds often built in the ornamental evergreens near the buildings, placing their nests surprisingly close together. Two were 23 yards apart, a third was 26 yards from them, and within 60 yards of these, there were four more occupied nests. Several nests were on the lawn, in small depressions hollowed out in bare spots free of grass, usually in the shade of a broad-leafed plant such as a mullein.
At Lake Texoma the birds nested in low trees and shrubs or on the ground in pastures, lawns, abandoned fields, and active cotton fields. Among the favorite trees were red cedar (Juniperus tnrginianus), post oak (Quercus stellata), winged elm (Ulmus alata), chittamwood (Bumelia 1an~ugi rtosa) , persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and osage orange (Maclura pomijera). Most nests were within 7 feet of the ground; the highest I found was 25 feet up in a post oak. The ground nests were usually shaded by a lone broad-leafed plant or by a grass tuft, but occasional ones were out in the open with no shade whatever.
In the short-grass prairies of the Oklahoma panhandle, where there are trees, the nest is usually on the ground in a bare or eroded place. G. M. Sutton informs me that on the Edwin S. George Reserve in southeastern Michigan, where the bird was not common from 1933 to 1950, it nested on the ground in open, sandy, sapling-dotted areas with a decidedly “western” appearance known locally as “blow-sands.”
Ground nests are often merely hollow depressions lined with fine grasses, but those built above the ground can be quite bulky. The cup-shaped structure has a wall of stout grasses and weed stems placed on a foundation of small twigs. Newly cut clover is a favorite building material at Lake Texoma. The nest lining is usually of fine grasses with occasional fine rootlets added. H. T. Gier (1949) reports a nest in Ohio lined with rootlets and hair.
Nest building at Texoma is not limited to any particular time of day, but activity is at its highest peak early in the morning. On June 26 I watched a female carry material to her nest nine times from 5:00 to 5:20 a.m. The nesting material, especially the lining, was gathered from a distance and the birds often flew through the territories of other lark sparrows in their search. One female gathered lining material from a point 200 yards from her nest.
Territoriality, never strongly marked in this species in Oklahoma, seems to wane as the breeding cycle progresses. During the time of nest building and egg laying both sexes drive other lark sparrows away from the site itself and furiously attack any stuffed lark sparrows placed near the nest. Once incubation is well under way, they tolerate dummies and show no resentment when other lark sparrows wander in the vicinity. Throughout the nesting season the birds gather in small bands as they feed on the lawn and in nearby deserted fields.
They tolerate other bird species on their territories at all times. One lark sparrow started building only 14 inches from an active mockingbird’s nest. The lark sparrow was apparently satisfied with the situation, but the mockingbird finally succeeded in driving it from the shrub. I found four examples of lark sparrows and orchard orioles nesting in the same small tree; in one case, in a persimmon, the two nests were only 5 feet apart. One small tree simultaneously contained active nests of a lark sparrow, an orchard oriole, and a scissor-tailed flycatcher. The flycatcher built first, then the sparrow placed her nest 6 feet from the flycatcher’s, and finally the oriole built 7 feet above the sparrow’s nest. No fighting was observed between these birds.
Building the first nest of the season usually takes the female 3 to 4 days, and a full day or more elapses after the nest is finished before the first egg is laid. On June 10, however, I found an egg laid after only 2 days of nest building. The nest was far from complete, and the female added the lining after laying the egg.
Eggs: The lark sparrow usually lays four or five eggs, but sometimes only three, and more rarely six. They are ovate and have a slight gloss. The ground is creamy or grayish white, with scribblings, scrawls, and spots of black or very dark browns such as “Mars brown,” “carob brown,” or “mummy brown,” with underlying spots of “light neutral gray.” The scribblings, most of which are black, are the predominant markings. These tend to concentrate toward the large end where they are often continuous and form a wreath around the egg, frequently leaving the lower part free of markings except for a few scattered spots. Occasional eggs will have a few scrawls of “light neutral gray” mingled with the dark brown or black scribblings. The measurements of 50 eggs of the nominate race average 20.1 by 15.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 23.9 by 17.3, 18.0 by 15.0, and 18.8 by 14.7 millimeters. The measurements of 40 eggs of C. g. strigatus average 20.4 by 16.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 22.9 by 17.8 and 16.8 by 14.0 millimeters.
At Lake Texoma the eggs were usually laid between 5:00 and 7:00 a.m. Before laying, the female sits quietly on the nest and can be approached closely without her showing alarm. As she lays the egg she rises slightly on the nest; after depositing it she settles rather deeply back into the nest and often shuts her eyes and sleeps for a short time. The newly laid egg is slightly moist and sticky, but it dries in a matter of minutes.
Incubation: Incubation is by the female alone. In the early nesting season she does not start incubating until the clutch is complete but may return during the day to shade the nest from the sun by sitting rather high on it. In July, females at Lake Texoma, whose earlier nesting attempts were frustrated by snakes or other predators, often started incubating with the first or second egg.
The female lark sparrow incubates so diligently that she can frequently be approached quite closely before she takes flight. She is particularly reluctant to leave her nest when the sun is shining on it, and on one unshaded nest in an abandoned field I caught the incubating bird several times by hand. She spends night hours on the nest, and as incubation progresses, leaves it less frequently during the day. At the start of incubation she may leave it for as much as an hour; toward the end she seldom stays away more than half an hour at a time, and I have watched several that stayed on the nest continually for more than 3 hours.
On a number of occasions I saw the male come near the nest with food in his bill and chirp in plain sight of the female for several minutes until she left the nest and joined him. He then ate the food himself and the pair flew off to a feeding area. This performance seemed to occur more frequently toward the end of incubation, and never did I see the male feed or offer food to the female when she left the nest.
When the female is flushed from a ground nest she usually feigns injury and runs along the ground with her tail spread, fluttering one or both wings and chirping softly. If her nest is in a shrub or tree she is less likely to feign injury, but perches near by and utters sharp alarm notes that soon summon the male.
E. S. Cameron (1908) states that the female incubates about 12 days. At four Texoma nests I timed, marking each egg with pencil the morning it was laid, the maximum possible elapsed times from the laying of the last egg until it hatched were 11 days 13 hours, 11 days i0’A hours, 11 days 10 minutes, and 10 days 23% hours. The fourth nest with the shortest incubation time ~vas in an open cotton field. Since it was only partly shaded by a lone broad-leaved plant, the female spent long stretches on the nest throughout the incubation period.
Eggs often pipped a full 24 hours before they actually hatched. In each of the several eggs I watched hatch the process appeared identi.. cal: the young bird cut through the shell in a straight line around the widest part of the egg, then pushed the two halves apart.
Young: Both parents care for the young from the moment they hatch. On July 15 I saw a male with food in his bill return to a nest that contained two eggs and one young bird 2 hours old. After perching near the nest and chirping for about 5 minutes, the male flew to the nest and presented the food to the female, who fed it to the young bird. Later in the day he returned to the nest during the femal&s absence and fed the nestling. Both these adults were colorbanded, which facilitated recognizing them as they cared for the young.
At another nest where the adults were color-banded, the male fed the young four times on the day they hatched and the female fed them three times in a 2%-hour period, in addition, during 45 minutes of this period the female brooded the young and the male brought food to the nest three times and presented it to the female, who in turn fed the young; thus, they were fed 10 times in 2% hours.
At a nest with young in Michigan, F. N. Wilson (1931) pressed down the surrounding vegetation to allow sunlight to reach the nest for photography. When the birds returned, the female stayed at the nest to shade the nestlings. The male brought food to her, some of which she fed to the young; the rest she ate herself.
As the young grow, the adults increase the tempo of their feeding until toward the end of the fledging period they may feed the young every few minutes. On June 4 the parents brought food 28 times in an hour to a nest with four 5-day-old young. The female made 19 trips, the male only 9, but he seemed to bring more each time than his mate did. Both parents carried fecal sacs away and dropped them from 20 to 80 feet from the nest. I never saw an adult lark sparrow eat a fecal sac.
Young lark sparrows normally remain in the nest until they are able to fly short distances on the 9th or 10th day after hatching. They can be handled and placed back in the nest until they are 6 days old; when disturbed or handled after 6 days, they usually desert the nest and scramble about on the ground or hide in low vegetation where they can be difficult to find. By surrounding a nest in an Aust.rian pine on the Biological Station lawn with a half-inch mesh hardware cloth 30 inches high, 1 was able to confine its three young ~vhere I could find them and still permit the parents free access.
One of these young I marked and weighed daily at 7 a.m. from the time it hatched until it fledged. Weighing 2.2 grams at hatching, its gram weights at successive 24-hour intervals were: 3.9, 5.8, 8.7, 11.0, 12.9,14.0,12.5,11.8,12.5. When it reached its greatest weight, at the end of the 6th day, it would no longer stay in the nest. Its weight losses the 7th and 8th days probably reflect its .increased activity, for the parents continued to feed it as before. Shortly after it was weighed on the 9th day, showing an increase, it flew over the fence with its siblings to a shrubby area near by, where the parents continued to care for the brood. All were flying too well to be caught.
Largely because of its long nesting season, lasting in Oklahoma from early May to late July, the lark sparrow generally has been assumed to be double brooded. G. S. Agersborg (1885) states that in North Dakota: “The first brood is raised from nests placed in unplowed fields; the second or third are generally built among potato vines or vegetables with heavy foliage. Have no doubt that three broods are often raised.” E. S. Cameron (1908) writes from Montana: “I have also seen eggs in July, but these were doubtless for a second brood.” M. G. Brooks (1938) concludes on the basis of finding a nest on July 8 that the species raises two broods in West Virginia. These and other similar assumptions in the literature are questionable, because none is based on definite evidence from observations of marked birds.
While my observations on double-broodedness at Lake Texoma were perhaps inconclusive, I obtained no definite proof of its occurrence and considerable evidence against it. The nesting attempts, successes, and failures of a number of color-banded females in the study area showed those that built nests in July had had one or more unsuccessful nests earlier in the season. The tendency of most pairs after fledging young was to join with other families in flocks in the nearby fields. A pair that successfully fledged a brood June 7 remained with one surviving young in the vicinity of the station throughout the summer and made no attempt to build another nest.
On July 17 1 found a pair of lark sparrows about 15 miles from the station feeding three fledglings only a day or two old. They were also feeding two young lark sparrows about a month old perched in a tree close by. That these represented an earlier brood cannot be assumed, for they may have been “adopted.” One color-banded female whose brood fledged in early July started to build another nest on July 18, but she deserted it after 2 days’ work, and 3 days later joined, with her mate and young, a large flock of lark sparrows that had gathered near by.
Plumages: At hatching, the young bird is sparsely covered with brownish-gray down. When the nestling is 2 days old, primaries and secondaries appear, but they are entirely sheathed. On the 3rd day the chick can partly open its eyes. On the 4th day the eyes are open wide, the remiges have lengthened but are still mostly sheathed, the rectrices have begun to appear, and tho feathers on the breast to develop. During the 5th day the terminal third of each primary and secondary is out of the sheath, the rectrices are still very short and entirely sheathed, and the underparts begin to look white with brown streaks. During the 6th day the rectrices begin to break out of their sheaths, and by the 7th day the chick looks well-feathered, although considerable down still clings to the feathers, especially those on the head and neck. The feathers continue to grow on the 8th day, and on the 9th, when the bird can usually fly, he is well feathered, although the wing feathers are not quite fully developed and the tail is still very short.
R. R. Graber (1955) describes the juvenal plumages as follows: “Lores dusky in stub-tailed birds (superciliary not complete). Supraand post-ocular stripe huffy white. Median crown stripe white or buffy white. Otherwise, forehead and crown brown, streaked with dark brown or blackish. Feathers of hind-neck and back black edged with buff or huffy white. (Pattern heavy streaking of black and buff.) Rump and upper tail coverts huffy or buffy brown, obscurely streaked with black. Rectrices black, outer four (at least) marked white terminally. Remiges black, outer primary edged with white. Tertials edged with light huffy. Greaters edged with cinnamon, tipped with huffy white (two wing-bars). Eye-ring and feathers about eye white. Auriculars light brown, dark-margined. Post- and subauriculars white (definite cheek-patch). Underparts white, more or less huffy tinged on chest, sides, flanks, and crissum. Chest, sides, and flanks profusely streaked with black. Belly (lower) and crissum immaculate. Leg feathers white.”
The first winter plumage is similar to the juvenal plumage, except that it is not streaked below and shows a dark brown central chest spot. The head pattern is very distinct: crown light brown, a welldefined huffy superciliary stripe, rictal and loral streaks black, auriculars chestnut. No specimens examined showed any molt of the juvenal remiges; although some rectrices were replaced in a few specimens, first winter birds are easily recognized by the presence of a light brown spot at the tip of the four outer rectrices. This spot is lost by feather wear and is not present on spring specimens.
The nuptial plumage resembles the first winter plumage, but a partial molt of feathers on the head, chin, and throat makes these areas appear somewhat brighter; the rectrices and remiges are usually badly worn and frayed.
The adult winter plumage, acquired by a complete postnuptial molt, and occurring in Oklahoma during July and August, resembles the first winter plumage, but its colors are slightly more intense and the markings on the outer tail feathers are solid white.
The sexes are similar in appearance in all plumages throughout the year.
Food: Few detailed studies of the lark sparrow’s food habits have been made. F. M. Bailey (1928) writes that in New Mexico its diet consists of: Insects 27 per cent and seeds 73 per cent. The lark sparrow, with the exception of the grasshopper sparrow * * * is the most valuable grasshopper destroyer of our native sparrows. More than half its animal food is grasshoppers. On the prairies and plains it also does much good in helping to check the invasions of the Rocky Mountain locust. In an outbreak of locusts, they made up over 91 per cent of its diet. It also eats great numbers of alfalfa weevils. One half of its vegetable food consists of seeds of grain and grass. Pigeon grass and Johnson grass are both eaten freely. The weed seed, including pigweed, destroyed, more than twice outweighs the grain consumed, and the grain is doubtless largely waste; beneficial insects are less than 1 per cent while injurious insects, including the alfalfa weevil, constitute 25 per cent of the food.
T. S. Roberts (1936) adds from the U.S. Biological Survey report: “Grass-seeds (including pigeon- and panic-grasses), and waste grain; seeds of ragweed, knot-weed, wild sunflower, puralane, etc. More than 14 per cent of its total diet consists of grasshoppers; other animal matter taken consists of weevils, caterpillars, and other insects.”
At Lake Texoma adults gathered food for their young from an unmowed section of the lawn ~vhere the grass grew some 15 inches tall. Here they captured small grasshoppers and the larvae of other insects, each adult returning to the nest with several insects in its bill at a time. They also fed their young fruits of the grass Bromus cat harticus.
Voice: T. S. Roberts (1932) gives the following account:
The song of the lark sparrow is long and varied, full of life and animation, and is poured forth with great fervor. It consists of a series of runs and trills, liquid and clear, broken here and there by fine aspirate notes which, however, do not detract from its beauty. Mr. Robert Ridgway, in his Birds of Illinois (1889), after expressing surprise that the vocal capabilities of the lark sparrow have been so generally neglected by authors and stating that in sprightliness and continuity the song “has few, if any, rivals among North American Fringillidae,” goes on to describe it in the following glowing terms, which coincide perfectly with the writer’s experience:
“As the bird perches upon the summit of a small tree, a fence post, or a telegraph wire, his notes may be heard throughout the day: in the morning before those of any other, and late in the evening when all else but this unweary songster are silent; indeed, often have we been awakened at midnight by a sudden outburst of silvery warblings from one of this species. This song is composed of a series of chants, each syllable rich, loud, and clear, interspersed with emotional trills. * * * Though seemingly hurried, it is one continuous gush of sprightly music; now gay, now melodious, and then tender beyond description,: the very expression of emotion. At intervals the singer falters, as if exhausted by exertion, and his voice becomes scarcely audible; but suddenly reviving in his joy, it is resumed in all its vigor, until he appears to be really overcome by the effort.”
The performer usually sings from the spreading limb of a tree, but at times from a more lowly perch, changing his position frequently. Snatches of the song may be given on the wing while the bird is passing from one place to another, and rarely he indulges in a brief flight song; he then arises a little way above the perch and with upturned head pours out the sweetly liquid notes in an ecstasy of fervent feeling.
At Lake Texoma singing was rather sporadic. So far as I could determine, only the male lark sparrow sings. Instead of establishing a favorite singing perch or perches, he may sing almost anywhere within or near his territory, from the ground or from various vantage points in shrubs or trees, or in flight. The flight song is particularly characteristic of the courtship period. During combats a series of high trilling notes is often heard, which is also uttered during copulation, apparently by both sexes.
The alarm note is a rather sharp chirp used by both sexes. When disturbed they also may utter low guttural notes. Nestlings use a soft trilling note when begging for food. After leaving the nest their frequent soft chirps enable the parents to locate them.
Birds continued to sing throughout the summer, even while they were molting and had gathered in large flocks. In early August I heard individuals singing from telephone wires late in the evening and well after dark. J. G. Tylcr (1913) noted of the species in California: “Aside from the inimitable Western Mockingbird, I know of no other bird that sings so often at night.”
Behavior: Where it is plentiful, as on its Oklahoma breeding grounds, the lark sparrow is markedly gregarious. Even at the height of the nesting season one sees them feeding together in small flocks. In such flocks at Lake Texoma I frequently identified color-banded individuals from active nests. While pairs defend their nest and its immediate environs, they do not establish or defend a feeding territory. Birds may fly some distance from the nest for both nesting material and food.
The flocks increase in size as summer wanes and become rather noisy, with much chirping and occasional outbursts of song. Individuals in the flocks quarrel with one another fairly frequently; the fights do not seem to be governed by sex or age, for males may combat with other males and with females, and adults with juveniles. Other species sometimes join the flocks. In one flock of 40 lark and 10 field sparrows, interspecific fighting occurred occasionally. In late summer the flocks become very wary and difficult to approach, and will leave the field where they are feeding at the first sight of an intruder.
Strangely, in my study area that bordered Lake Texoma, I never saw the birds drink from or bathe in the lake. They often did both, however, in a small pond near by. On July 17 I recorded in my notes that “At least six different birds came to the pond to drink this morning. Each flew to within 3 feet of the water’s edge and then walked up until it almost stood in the water. Each bird drank at least a half dozen times by dipping its bill in the water and then lifting it to an angle of 45Oï1~ Early in the summer the birds usually came to the pond to bathe individually, but by mid-July they came in small flocks and bathed together. After bathing they generally stood around for perhaps a half hour preening themselves. L. M. Whitaker (1957a) describes how her captive lark sparrow habitually oiled its tarsi after bathing and before preening:
After briefly touching the [uropygial] gland [with its bill], the Lark Sparrow deliberately places one foot firmly forward on the cage top and rather quickly runs its opened bill down upon the front of that tarsus, from bend of heel to the toes. It pulls itself upright, places the other foot forward, and treats this other tarsus in like manner. Only after both tarsi have been oiled does the bird begin to preen, usually starting by pulling at mid-breast feathers and then stripping remiges of either wing. Preening and drying actions, continuing until the bird is dry, sometimes require 35 minutes. Once preening has started, the bird neither utilizes the oil gland nor employs the bill upon its tarsi.
Field marks: R. T. Peterson (1941) points out that ” The best mark [on this open-country sparrowi is the rounded tail with much white in the outside corners (somewhat as in Towhee: not as in Vesper Sparrow).” It also has “chestnut ear-patches, striped crown, and white breast with single dark central spot. * * * Young birds are finely streaked on the breast and lack the central spot, but are otherwise quite recognizable.”
Enemies: H. Friedmann (1929) notes that “Both the eastern and western forms of the Lark Sparrow are known to be victims of the Cowbird.” He considers the eastern race “an uncommon host,” for which he then had only three records, one from Oklahoma. Later he (1934) records nine parasitized nests in Decatur County, Kans., and for the western race notes that “Mrs. Nice (Birds of Oklahoma, rev. ed., 1931, p. 183) records five parasitized nests (out of 23) in Oklahoma.”
During the summer of 1957 at the Lake Texoma Biological Station, several life history studies of birds were in progress. As it was felt that fewer ncsts would be deserted if the cowbird population was thinned out, a number of cowbirds were collected in the vicinity of the station early in the season. During the summer I recorded only three cases of cowbird parasitism near the station. On June 7 a cowbird laid in a lark sparrow’s nest containing one egg; the parents promptly deserted. On June 14 a cowbird laid in another lark sparrow’s nest containing three fresh eggs, probably an incomplete clutch as the female had not yet started to incubate; she also deserted. On July 6 I found a female lark sparrow incubating four of her own eggs and one cowbird egg. The four lark sparrow eggs hatched July 10, the cowbird egg on July 13. This suggests the lark sparrow may be more apt to accept a cowbird egg after she has started to incubate her own clutch. Later that month I saw a number of young cowbirds out of the nest being fed by lark sparrows away from the station. The lateness of these records also suggests that the lark sparrows may accept cowbird eggs more readily late in the season, after experiencing several nesting failures.
Eastern Lark Sparrow (C. g. grammacus)
Range: Minnesota, southern Michigan, southern Ontario, and western New York south to southern Mexico and southern Florida.
Breeding Range: The eastern lark sparrow breeds from northwestern and central Minnesota (Warren, Isanti County), north central Wisconsin (Dunn County, Kelley Brook), southern Michigan (Kent and St. Clair counties), southern Ontario (Hyde Park, Toronto), western New York (Monroe County), and central Pennsylvania (Beaver, State College) south through eastern Nebraska (West Point), eastern Kansas and Oklahoma to northeastern Texas, Louisiana (Bienville), central west.ern Alabama (Greensboro), western and central North Carolina (Cranberry, rarely to Raleigh), and north central Virginia (Dale Enterprise, University).
Winter Range: Winters from central Texas (Austin), southern Louisiana (Diamond), and central Florida (Seven Oaks) south to Guerrero (Chilpancingo), Oaxaca (Santa Efigenia), and southern Florida (Key West); occasionally north along the Atlantic coast to Delaware (Lewes) and northern New Jersey (Bergen County). In fall migration stray birds regularly reach the Atlantic coast, Nova Scotia to Florida.
Casual records: Casual north to northern Michigan (Copper Harbor), central Ontario (Chapleau), and east central Quebec (Aguanish) and south to Cuba (Guantdnamo).
Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Florida: Flamingo, April 5. Alabama: Birmingham, April 7; Livingston, April 10. South Carolina: Alto, April 15. Virginia: Cape Charles, April 24. West Virginia: Waverly, April 16. Pennsylvania, Linesville, May 2; Sewickly, May 4. New Jersey: Riverhead, April 11. New York: Jay, April 7; Riverdale, April 11. Massachusetts: Framingharn, April 29. New Hampshire: Dover, May 2. Louisiana: Curtis, April 20. Mississippi: Tishomingo County, April 17. Arkansas: Garland County, April 6. Tennessee: Nashville, March 29 (median of 8 years, April 17). Kentucky: Bowling Green, March 20. Missouri: Concordia, April 4; St. Louis, April 20 (median of 14 years, April 28). Illinois: Peoria, March 25; Urbana, March 27 (median of 17 years, April 22). Indiana: Frankfort, March 11. Ohio: central Ohio, April 18 (median, May 12); Oberlin (median of 10 years, April 28). Michigan: Three Rivers, April 19. Ontario: Windsor, April 20. Iowa: Sioux City, April 15 (median of 38 years, May 1). Wisconsin: Lafayette County, April 15. Minnesota: Rochester, April 5; Minneapolis, April 6 (average of 25 years for southern Minnesota, April 25). Texas: Denton, March 1; Commerce, March 9; Tyler, March 15. Oklahoma: Norman, March22; Moore, March 24; Milburn, March 16, Ivrill Creek, March 18; Tulsa, April 11. Kansas-northeastern Kansas, March 29 (median of 23 years, April 18). Nebraksa: Omaha, March 25. South Dakota: Faulkton, March 15. North Dakota: Bismarek, April 20. Manitoba: Margaret, April 28; Treesbank, May 6 (average of 19 years, May 14). Saskatchewan: Wiseton, April 17. New Mexico: State College, April 8; Rio Grande Valley, April 27 (median of 8 years, May 10). Arizona: Fort Apache, April 15; Flagstaff, April 16. Colorado: Durango, April 6. Utah-Salt Lake City, April 4. Wyoming: Jay Em, May 1; Careyhurst, May 2. Idaho: Castleford, April 17 (median of 11 years, May 3). Montana: Billings, April 19; Terry, April 27 (average of 6 years, May 7). Alberta: Flagstaff, May 3. California: Yosemite Valley, April 12. Nevada: Mercury, April 9. Oregon: Coorvallis, April 1. Washington: Spokane, March 27. British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, May 10.
Late dates of spring departure are: Florida: Tallahassee, April 29. Georgia: Chickamauga Park, May 10. South Carolina: Alto, April 26. Virginia: Charlottesville, May 1. New York: Montauk, June 12, New Hampshire: Concord, May 30. Tennessee: Nashville, May 3. Kentucky: Bowling Green, May 1. Indiana: West Lafayette, May 25. Ohio: central Ohio, May 27. Michigan: Three Rivers, May 27. Texas: Cove, April 20. South Dakota: Faulkton, May 1. North Dakota: Jamestown, May 13. Manitoba: Margaret, May 27. New Mexico-: Apache, May 30. Arizona: Tucson, June 16 and June 9. California: Inyo County, April 29. Nevada: Pyramid Lake, May 5. British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, May 25.
Early dates of fall arrival are: Nevada: Quinn Crossing, August 29. Montana: Heath, August 11. Arizona: Globe, July 5; Tucson, July 9. Texas: El Paso, August 5. Indiana: Sedan, August 26. Illinois: Chicago, September 6. Tennessee-Knox County, August 11. Mississippi: Gulfport, August 16. Louisiana: Baton Rouge, August 24. New Brunswick: Grand Manan, August 13. Massachusetts: Newburyport, August 2; Martha’s Vineyard, August 19 (median of 7 years, September 6). New Hampshire: Star Island, Isle of Shoals, August 12. Connecticut: Guilford, August 27. New York: Shelter Island, July 7. Maryland: Laurel, July 17. District of Columbia: August 8. Virginia: Charlottesville, July 4. North Carolina: Greensboro, July 30. South Carolina: Charleston, August 1. Georgia: Camden County, August 11. Alabama: Dauphin Island, August 22. Florida: northwest Florida, July 25; St. Marks Light, July 29.
Late dates of fall departure are: British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, September 15. Washington: Yakirna, September 27. Oregon: Rogue River Valley, December 14 and November 9. California: Berkeley, November 27. Idaho: Lewiston, October 13 (median of 11 years, September 12). Wyoming: Careyhurst, October 15. Utah: Willard, October 12. Colorado: Fort Morgan, November 17. New Mexico: Mesilla, October 27. Manitoba: Treesbank, September 11. North Dakota: Charlson, September 9. South Dakota: Faulkton, November 15. Nebraska: Valentine, November 1. Kansas: northeastern Kansas, October 16 (medhin of 7 years, October 12). Oklahoma: Norman, September 25; Fort Sill, November 26; Lake Texoma, October 10; Payne County, October 7. Texas: Tyler, December 11. Minnesota: Minneapolis, October 16; Fillmore County, September 9 (average of 7 years for southern Minnesota, July 27). Wisconsin: Adams County, September 16. Iowa: Sioux City, August 16~ Michigan: Plymouth, September 20. Ohio: Lucas and Ottawa counties, October 18; central Ohio, September 28 (average, August 30). Indiana: Indianapolis, November 20. Illinois: Odin, October 24. Missouri: St. Louis, October 10 (median of 14 years, September 14). Kentucky: Bowling Green, October 18. Tennessee: Nashville, September 18. Arkansas: Garland County, September 29. Mississippi: Bay St. Louis, October 14. Louisiana: Baton Rouge, October 14. New Brunswick: Grand Manan, October 3. Maine: Kokadjo, October 5. New Hampshire: hampton, October 20. Massachusetts: Newtonville, November 25. Rhode Island: Block Island, October 5. New York: Miller Place, November 27. Maryland: Worcester County, October 21. Alabama: Foley, November 1. Florida: Arcadia, December 5.
Egg dates: Arizona: 9 records, May 17 to June 27.
California: 132 records, April 4 to July 16; 72 records, May 1 to June 1.
Colorado: 6 records, June 2 to June 30.
Illinois: 32 records, May 5 to July 4; 22 records, May20 to June 12.
Oklahoma: 61 records, May 14 to July 20; 42 records, June 1 to June 30.
Texas: 63 records, April10 to July 14; 35 records, May ito May23.
Western Lark Sparrow (C. g. strigatus)
Range: British Columbia and southern portions of prairie provinces south to southern Mexico and El Salvador.
Breeding Range: The western lark sparrow breeds from western Oregon (Corvallis), central interior British Columbia (Savona, Cascade), central Idaho (Payette Lake), southeastern Alberta (Medicine Hat), southern Saskatchewan (Cypress Hills, Regina), and southern Manitoba (Treesbank, Winnipeg) south to southern California (Vallecito), central Nevada (Reno), south central Arizona (Quitobaquito eastward), northeastern Sonora, Zacatecas (Cerro Gordo), Coahuila (Sierra del Carmen), southern Texas (Raymondville), and east to western Kansas; summer records north to central British Columbia (140 mile on Cariboo Road, Puntchesakut Lake), south central Alberta (Red Deer), and central Manitoba (Lake St. Martin).
Winter range: Winters from central and southern California (Nicasio, Colfax), southern Arizona (Yuma, Phoenix, Camp Verde), western and southern central Texas, and Louisiana (Cameron, New Orleans) south to southern Baja California (Cape San Lucas), Guerrero (Chilpancingo), Chiapas (San Benito), El Salvador (La Aldea), and Veracruz (El Conejo).
Casual records: Casual in migration east to New Brunswick (Grand Manan), Massachusetts (Ipswich), North Carolina (Stumpy Point), and Florida (Key West).