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Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

If you have been noticing some flocks of what looks to be sparrows getting up in front of your vehicle while driving through the country this winter, you might want to take a closer look next time. Many among us dismiss these flocks of small sparrow-sized birds as, well, sparrows. But rather than being brown, these flocks of small birds may be quite white. If so, there is a good chance they are horned larks or perhaps snow buntings.

Horned larks are fairly common in North Dakota throughout the year. They are a bird of the open country where the vegetation is short and sparse. That includes, for example, overgrazed pastures, harvested fields, fallowed areas, and the like, where they feed on a variety of seeds and insects. During the winter months they can often be observed feeding on the ground along both highways and gravel roads. If you can get a look at them through a pair of binoculars you will notice small tufts of feathers (the “horns”) on each side of the head, as well as their black mask, black chest band, yellow face and perhaps throat, and light undersides. They look like they could be a small and horned cousin of the meadow lark.

If, on the other hand, the birds getting up in front of the vehicle have bright flashes of white in both body and wings, they are probably snow buntings. Snow buntings are species of the high arctic and are generally only winter visitors although they may be seen during spring and fall. Their plumage can be quite variable, but look for lots of white on the body and particularly on the inner wings. The wingtips will be black, and the tail is black and white. When in flight, they are noticeably white, and the white flashing of the wings is quite pronounced.

So the next time you’re traveling, bring along a pair of binoculars and a bird guide if you have them. If you see a flock of these birds, find a safe place to pull over, get out the binoculars and bird guide, and do a little bird watching. Both species are quite colorful and have interesting markings. Plus, they are just fun to watch. I think you will find it is time well spent.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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