It is the evening of May 4, 2010. Carl Gerhardt and I drive slowly along a dirt road in the Missouri river bottoms about fifteen miles south of Columbia, Missouri. We hear faint jumbles of high-pitched tinkling notes coming from the muddy fields on both sides of the road. These are the songs of Horned Larks—magical tinkling outbursts that remind me of the sounds made by wind chimes excited by a light breeze.
NOTE: The conditions were not optimal for recording, so to provide you with an example, here are Horned Lark songs that I recorded years ago at another location:
Horned Lark simple songs. Recorded by Lang Elliott near Smithtown, Long Island, New York, June 18, 1990.
Carl drops me off at a bend in the road and I walk into the field in the direction of a singing male. His songs grow louder and I know he’s nearby, but I am unable to spot him as I carefully scan the field in what I think is his direction. Then I get confused. First, he seems to be in front of me, then he sounds like he’s behind me, then to the right, then to the left. I am completely baffled by his apparent ventriloquism until I look up . . . and there he is, singing and hovering about a hundred feet straight above me in the air!
I delight in watching his flight display for nearly ten minutes as the sun quickly sinks in the sky. He hovers in one spot, fluttering his wings like a butterfly. Then he glides a short distance to a new position with his wings and tail spread, letting loose his jumble of notes. Then he repeats this performance, fluttering again like a butterfly, sometimes in two or three spurts, before gliding and singing his next song.
There is no way to describe the beauty of this moment. The expansive bottomland fields framed with limestone bluffs. The sun setting in the western sky. The entire scene flush with reddish tint. The glowing lark, hovering against the darkening sky. The tinkling songs, falling, glittering to my ears.
I am reminded of all the English writers who have waxed poetic about their own beloved lark, the Skylark, that delivers a remarkably similar performance:
To A Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1820)
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
LONG OR COMPLEX SONG:
The Horned Lark’s normal or simple song (which the bird described above was giving in flight) lasts about two seconds and is composed of an excited series of high-pitched tinkling notes that start slowly but quickly accelerate into a cascading jumble. Individual songs are separated by silent intervals lasting several seconds or longer.
However, the Horned Lark has another song pattern that I refer to as the “long” or “complex” song (dubbed “recitative” song by some biologists). It is composed of long rambling passages, each ending with a cascade of notes. I recorded the following example in the prairieland of Alberta many years ago, during the twilight of dawn, as a male sang excitedly from a fencepost:
Horned Lark singing complex song at dawn from a fencepost perch. Recorded by Lang Elliott near Hanna, Alberta, Canada, June 16, 1992.
What is the significance of the two different song patterns? Scientists don’t know. Simple songs are given more frequently early in the breeding season, while complex songs are given more often as the season progresses. Both types may be sung in flight or from the ground. But do they have different meanings and are they given in different social contexts? More study is clearly needed.