Lark sparrow adult upperparts are gray-brown with dark brown and tan streaks and spots; the head has an ornate pattern, with chestnut cheeks and crown stripes, a pale central crown stripe, and a buff eye line. The tail is dark, with the outer two corners having large white tips, similar to an eastern towhee's tail, only much smaller. Underparts are clear gray, with a dark central breast spot. Juveniles have a duller pattern with streaked underparts. Song begins with two clear whistles, followed by a varied series of buzzes, trills, chirps, and whistles. Call is a tchip or tsip.
Similar species: If you are driving down a gravel road in northern Missouri in the summer, and a sparrow-sized bird with white in the tail flies up in front of the car, it might be a lark sparrow or a vesper sparrow. The lark sparrow has a brown and black, rounded-tipped tail with white corners. The vesper sparrow has a slightly notched, all-dark tail, except the two outer tail feathers are mostly white. Vesper sparrows also have streaked breasts, and they lack the unique face markings of the lark sparrow. Horned larks are also common in the same habitats; they are about an inch longer, appear slimmer in profile, and have a black tail with white outer tail feathers.
Length: 6½ inches.
Habitat and Conservation
Usually seen in farmlands, prairies, roadsides, woodland edges, and row-crop fields — open places where a few trees and shrubs, or forested tracts are nearby. On the ground, the lark sparrow typically walks, instead of hopping. One old-fashioned name for it was “road-bird,” for its commonness along roadways.
Forages on the ground for insects and seeds in open areas. Grasshoppers are one favorite food; grass and weed seeds make up a large percentage of the diet.
Uncommon summer breeding resident; as a winter visitor, accidental in southwest Missouri. The lark sparrow is the only member of its genus. One obsolete common name for this species is “quail head,” apparently because of the color pattern on the face and crown. In the early 1900s, this species seemed to be expanding its range. But in the past 50 years, its populations have declined by about 35 percent.
Present in Missouri from mid-March through the end of November. The male performs a courtship dance, hunching down, cocking and spreading his tail feathers, then strutting with wingtips held low to the ground. Cup nests are built on the ground or in low branches and made of grasses, twigs, and other fine materials. Sometimes lark sparrows use a former mockingbird or brown thrasher nest; also, there is evidence that the two species may even share the nest concurrently. A clutch comprises 3–6 eggs. Lark sparrows can live to be at least 9 years old. Their winter territory ranges from Texas south into Guatemala.
Any New World bird with the word “lark” in its name probably has something in common with the true larks — an unrelated Old World family. Perhaps it is a sweet, beautiful, bubbly song that reminded people of the true larks. Or perhaps it is the open-country, ground-dwelling habit, which is also like that of the Old World larks.
The eggs and young of ground-nesting birds are especially vulnerable to predation. Even carefully concealed nests can be discovered by snakes, raccoons, and other predators. Lark sparrows eat plenty of seeds, but they consume a larger proportion of insects during nesting season, when the growing young need extra protein.
About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.