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A Closer Look: The Lark Sparrow


Scott Gomes

GIF-Lark Sparrow Picture

Originally published in:
North Dakota Outdoors
(June, 1997)

Official Publication of the
State Game and Fish Department
100 North Bismarck Expressway
Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-5095

This resource is based on the following source:
Gomes, Scott.  1997.  A closer look: The lark sparrow.  North Dakota Outdoors
This resource should be cited as:
Gomes, Scott.  1997.  A closer look: The lark sparrow.  North Dakota Outdoors 
     59(10):20.  Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. 
     (Version 15MAY98).

Return to A Closer Look Series
Sparrows cause many identification problems for birders. In fact, any small, brown, active bird is often called a "sparrow."

The exotic house sparrow (previously known as English sparrow) is familiar to most people. The house sparrow was introduced from Europe and is found in cities and on farms. It is considered a pest and is not protected by law.

On the other hand, 22 species of native sparrows nest in or migrate through North Dakota. They are beneficial and protected. Many of our native sparrows are similar in appearance and are often difficult to differentiate from one another, even for expert birders.

The lark sparrow, however, is more easily identified than some of its kin. The lark sparrow gets its name from its rich melodious song that resembles the songs of members of the lark family. It has one of the finest songs among the sparrow family. Its scientific name, Chondestes grammacus, means "grain eater with striped head."

The lark sparrow's head - boldly patterned in black, white, and chestnut with a red-brown patch beneath each eye - simplifies identification. No other member of the sparrow family looks like it. Its underparts are gray-white, unstreaked, and with a single dark spot in the center of the breast. The black tail is long and rounded with white tips. Both female and male are similar in appearance.

The lark sparrow inhabits grassy pastures, country roadside ditches, and open woodlands. Its range is primarily south and west of the Missouri River. It also occurs in smaller numbers in valleys along the Sheyenne River and adjoining sandhill areas. The lark sparrow's diet is mainly weed and grass seed. They also eat insects; grasshoppers are preferred.

During spring courtship, the male lark sparrow struts on the ground with its wings and tail spread, much like a turkey--an impressive display for a bird weighing little more than an ounce. Cup-shaped nests constructed of weed stems, twigs, and lined with fine grasses are usually built on the ground at the base of a small plant or shrub. The female lays 4-5 cream-colored eggs with black and brown spots. Incubation lasts about 12 days and young leave the nest 9-10 days after hatching.

If you have never seen a lark sparrow and would like to add one to your bird list, a stretch of county road approximately 12 miles west of Mandan offers good viewing opportunities. Take Interstate 94 west of Mandan to Exit 140 and head south. After crossing Highway 10, stay on the graveled county road for approximately nine miles. On this nine-mile stretch of road, I have seen lark sparrows, lazuli buntings, spotted towhees (formerly rufous-sided towhee), grasshopper sparrows, upland sandpipers, Eastern bluebirds, Baird's sparrows, and loggerhead shrikes.

If you would like to learn more about North Dakota's native sparrows and other songbirds, the publication "Songbirds of North Dakota" is available free from the Game and Fish Department's nongame wildlife program at (701)-328-6224 OR 328-6612.

Scott Gomes is a technician with the Department's natural resources division.

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