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Blane Klemek: Horned lark, American robin are harbingers of spring

As the snow melts and springtime green-up approaches, observing the first migrating birds is always something to look forward to. And though the sighting of that first Canada goose or red-winged blackbird or eastern bluebird of the year is a delight, there are two species of birds that many people consider to be the harbingers of spring – the horned lark and American robin.

I just observed my first horned larks of 2013 flying over open cropland and grassland of western Norman County near the towns of Flom, Twin Valley and Ada. Horned larks, believed by many birders to be the true harbingers of spring (after all, they are flying about the open landscape, snow-covered fields right now), are also one of only two “true” native larks – the other being the sky lark. The unrelated meadow lark is not a lark at all, but, rather, is a relative of the blackbird.

Our resident horned larks, which are known to reside year around in southwestern Minnesota, are generally late winter migrants to northwest Minnesota. The 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 feathered “tufts” on their crowns, thus giving them their namesake “horned.”

Horned larks do their foraging and feeding on the ground. Their diet 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 nest, 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 includes hovering, circling, and diving back to the ground.

Choosing to build their nests on the ground, horned larks in Minnesota are noted for their propensity to sparse, short-grass cover (such as within overgrazed pastures and crop stubble fields) that few other birds would find suitable for nesting. You will sometimes find horned larks nesting in the short-grass fields adjacent to airport runways, too.

Often choosing nest sites alongside tufts of grass or other debris on the ground, the 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 to 12 days, both parents feed and care for the young, usually anywhere from two to 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.

Another harbinger of spring, indeed, probably considered by more birders to be the most popular and accepted avian harbinger, is the American robins. Robins, which are members of the thrush family and are the largest thrush at about 10-inches long from beak to tail, are one of the most recognizable birds that frequent our backyards and woodlands. 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. It’s no wonder that the robin is often the first bird that a child learns to identify.

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 heads to the side as if listening for something, and then quickly stabs with its beak between blades of grass 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 sun rise. 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.

Indeed, the harbingers of springtime – the horned lark or American robin – 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 a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at