Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 12, 2008

Alouetta, Gentile Alouetta

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:34 pm

I know it’s not safe to snap photos while driving, but doing so while on an isolated back country road is not as unsafe as doing it, say, on a busy interstate during rush hour. Life is relative, after all. Being that I was the only one on this particular stretch of snowy road, I gave myself permission to make the attempt to capture a flock of frolicking larks in the road ahead. The problem was that the flock of nervous birds would not sit still long enough for me to creep close enough to get them in my viewfinder. I crept, they flew, I crept, they flew.  You get the idea. 

  It was only upon the approach of a big blue snow plow that I, the camera, and a single lark were able to meet in time.  I snapped this picture and gunned my truck forward just before the plow, I, and the camera could meet at a single point in time. O.K., the picture’s not that great but at least it records the presence of a bird we frequently see along our roadsides – the Horned Lark.

  Our country roads frequently host winter flocks of Horned Larks who gather upon them to eat dirt – or more properly gravel.  In this situation, patches of the dirt road were exposed by the action of the plow. The sparrow-sized birds ingest tiny pebbles which end up in their gizzards as food grinders. As seed eaters, larks appreciate the grindstone qualities of good road gravel.

  If I were to literally follow the instructions laid out by that innocent little French song “Alouetta Alouetta, je te plumerai” I could show you one of those stony little gizzards.  This innocent little ditty is about a lark – a little gentle lark – being torn asunder.  First you rip off his little beak, his head, take out his eyes and tear open his back and do so in a merry euphonic manner. Why, you may ask? “To eat eet, but of course Monsieur,” would be the indignant French reply. People eat songbirds in Europe and find great pleasure in singing about it – “four and twenty blackbirds” for instance.

  Although I came upon 25 larks on that snowy stretch of road, not a one offered itself up for culinary inspection.  I also was not in Europe on a lark, but in West Michigan, so you’ll just have to take my gizzard description at face value.

  Horned larks are the only lark species found in North America. A long time ago a rabid group of Shakespeare fans tried to introduce Sky Larks here because they were mentioned by the Bard, but they were unsuccessful in this endeavor. Our native lark does a fine job of representing the clan. It is a pretty little thing, though not flashy. A black gorget hangs about the neck, and the yellowish face is accented with a black face mask framed by black eyebrows that terminate as little horns. Take a look at this professional shot (probably not taken from a car window) and you can clearly see the horns, but keep in mind that the birds don’t always erect these tufts. 

  The best way to describe their call is as a tinkling “ti-ti-ti”.  Theirs is a light airy sound that is often rendered as a series of bubbly ascending notes. My roadside flock tinkled out into the nearby cornfield and waited my passing.  Horned Larks are an open country bird – a prairie species really – that finds comfort in exposed fields and low cut grasslands. They will stick to this airy habitat as spring approaches and even manage to get off an early brood before spring plowing occurs.

  It was my intention to simply introduce the bird to you and be done with it, but I find that my use of the word “flock” to describe the roadside gathering might be somewhat controversial. Here in America, you see, it’s perfectly acceptable to use that term for a gang of larks but in Europe they have no fewer than five different terms for the same thing. On the outside chance that a Parisian reads this and scoffs at my ignorance (le stoo-peed commoner, no?), I will list the following descriptive words that have been used to designate a group of larks. You can have an ascension of, a chattering of, exaltation of, a happiness of, or even a springul of larks. 

  I have to admit that espying an exaltation of Horned Larks sounds so much interesting than just watching a flock of ‘em. 

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