Horned Larks & Snow Buntings
Have you been spending much time driving down those long lonesome highways this winter? If you have, you’ve probably seen some flocks of sparrows along the roads. Or have you?
Many people simply dismiss those flocks of sparrow-sized birds as, well, sparrows. The next time you see one of those flocks of small birds take a closer look at them. In many cases you’ll notice that they aren’t very brown. They may, in fact, be quite white. If that’s the case, you’re probably seeing flocks of snow buntings or horned larks. There’s a good chance that they are what you’ve been seeing all along.
Horned larks are birds of open country and the prairie. Don’t expect to see them (or the snow buntings) at your feeder. They’re common over much of North Dakota all year, although their numbers may vary a bit. During winter they are occasionally observed feeding on the ground along roadways.
Snow buntings are a different story. They’re birds of the high arctic. They’re generally just winter visitors, although they may also be observed during spring and fall. Snow buntings like open country such as grasslands and farmed areas, and as with the horned larks, can occasionally be observed during winter feeding on the ground along the road.
The two birds are kind of tough to tell apart at a distance, but look for lots of white on the snow buntings, particularly on the wings. If you get close enough to a flock of horned larks you may be able to see the black sideburns, a black patch across the top of the breast, and perhaps the black “horns” which, of course, are tufts of feathers.
The next time you’re traveling, take along a pair of binoculars and a bird book if you have them. When you see one of these flocks of birds, pull over, get out the binoculars, and do a little bird watching. I think you’ll enjoy the time spent watching them. Both species are quite colorful with interesting markings. You’ll also likely have some fun just watching their behavior. They’re just plain fun to watch.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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