As the snow melts and springtime green-up approaches, observing the first migrating birds is always something to look forward to and talk about. And though the sighting of that first Canada goose, red-winged blackbird or American kestrel of the year is a delight, there are two species of birds that many people, depending on where you live, consider to be the harbingers of spring - the American robin and horned lark.
American robins are members of the thrush family, of which bluebirds are also members. Robins are the largest thrush at about 10-inches long from beak to tail. One of the most easily recognizable birds that frequent our backyards and woodlands, it's no wonder that the robin is often the first bird that a child learns to identify. The males' brick-red breast, dark head, and bright yellow bill are traits that set this friendly and beautiful bird apart from many other birds.
One of the behaviors so common of the American robin is the manner in which they walk and feed. We often observe robins on our lawns searching for one of their favorite foods, earthworms. Typical of their style is to fly to the ground, remain still for a few seconds, then hop forward in several quick bounds and stop again.
In looking for food, a robin bends down slightly, cocks its head to the side as if listening for something, and then quickly stabs with its beak between blades of grass for an insect, worm, caterpillar or grub that it spotted moving.
Robins are one of the first birds of the morning to begin singing their delightfully melodious song.
It's not uncommon to hear a robin begin singing well before sunrise. Beautifully warbled and varied phrases separated by short pauses are the characteristic song-pattern of the robin.
While the diet of robins during the breeding and nesting season consists of primarily insects, worms and other invertebrates, robins feed on a wide variety of plant material too. Throughout much of the year robins feed on mostly berries and other fruits and seeds. Sumac, grape, cedar, cranberry, mountain ash, raspberry, serviceberry and nannyberry are just some of the many plant foods robins eagerly seek out and consume.
For this reason it is a good idea to plant fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that retain their fruits throughout the winter months for the eventual return of springtime robins. When insects are hard to find early in the spring, fruits and other foods from plants are very important to migrating birds like robins. Planting such trees and shrubs such as hawthorn, crabapple, chokecherry, nannyberry and cranberry can really help out robins and other birds when insects are scarce.
After robins have fledged from the nest, their juvenile plumage gives them away as young robins. Sporting their spotted breasts, you'll often observe the youngsters hopping alongside doting parents busily keeping the adult-sized and begging offspring fed. In doing so, the juvenile birds learn about where to find food, how to capture and forage for food and what tastes good.
Horned larks, which are considered by many birders as "true" harbingers of spring (after all, they've been flying about the open, snow-covered fields since early March), are also one of only two "true" native larks. The unrelated meadow lark is not a lark at all, but, rather, is a relative of the blackbird.
Regardless, horned larks, which are known to reside year around in southwestern Minnesota, are generally late winter migrants to northwest Minnesota. These slender looking birds with long wings sport yellowish throats, dark facial masks, and dark breast bands.
The breast bands are similar in appearance to the dark "Vs" found on the western and eastern meadowlarks' breasts. Male horned larks also have, as their name indicates, small feather-tufts on their crowns, thus giving them a "horned" look.
Like most robins, horned larks do their feeding on the ground. But unlike robins, the diet of horned larks includes a large variety of weed and grass seeds. Usually feeding together in large flocks, horned larks forage by running and walking as they search for seeds and insects.
Considered a songbird, horned larks do indeed have a musical song, though often described as "high pitched, but weak." Chirps are followed by a rapid series of crescendo-like tinkling warbles. In the open spaces where these birds breed and nests, male horned larks' songs carry well and can be heard from surprisingly long distances away. Males typically sing their songs from high above the ground during their courtship flight displays that include hovering, circling and diving back to the ground.
Ground nesters, horned larks in Minnesota are noted for their propensity to sparse, short-grass cover, such as in overgrazed pastures and stubble fields, that few other birds would find suitable for nesting. You'll sometimes find horned larks nesting in the short-grass fields adjacent to airport runways.
Often choosing nest sites alongside tufts of grass or other debris on the ground, the horned lark's nest is a simple grass-lined nest built in a small depression. Nest building and incubating are all performed by the female.
After an incubation period of only 10-12 days, both parents feed and care for the young, usually anywhere from two-five nestlings. According to the literature, young horned larks can leave the nest in as little as nine days after hatching. Still, the offspring don't fledge until about three weeks of age.
Indeed, the harbingers of springtime, no matter which bird you feel is most deserving of the title, are birds to anticipate and welcome to the Northland as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com.