Alaudidae. A name that is derived from the Celtic word Alauda (according to the Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder). Alauda translates to “great sound” in that language. An apt name for a family of wonderful songsters – Larks.
They are not attention-seekers though, keeping their talents hidden behind a largely dull-brown visage. Larks are open country birds, with a preference to the ground or short vegetation and rocks. The brownish colouration helps these birds camouflage themselves against predators. It often includes some streaking along with white, black and different shades of grey in the plumage. Rounded wings, short tails and stout legs are distinct characteristics seen in most species. Long hind claws provide them with stability to stand on the ground.
Larks are often confused with another group of brown birds – pipits – that share their habitat. However, there are key morphological differences between the two groups. In larks, the tarsus (the lowest leg bone, connected to the toes) has only one set of scales on the rear surface, which is rounded. Pipits and all other songbirds have two plates of scales on the rear surface, which meet at a protruding rear edge (Ridgway 1907). And most larks have heavier bills with evenly-sloping culmens. Most pipits have thinner bills with a small hump over their nostrils.
Omnivorous in their diet, larks forage on the ground to feed on a variety of food including insects and plant matter (like seeds, grasses, leaves, buds, fruits and flowers). The bill shapes of different species of larks vary based on their diet and feeding techniques. Longer bills help the bird dig into the ground for insect larvae. Stouter bills come in handy where the diet consists largely of seeds
Larks are a diverse family of around 98 species spread over 21 genera. They are predominantly an Old World and Australian family of birds, with just one species (Horned Lark) extending into the Americas. 9 species (across 6 genera) represent this family in Karnataka:
- Indian Bushlark, Mirafra erythroptera
- Jerdon’s Bushlark, Mirafra affinis
- Singing Bushlark, Mirafra cantillans
- Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark, Eremopterix griseus
- Rufous-tailed Lark, Ammomanes phoenicura
- Greater Short-toed Lark, Calandrella brachydactyla
- Malabar Lark, Galerida malabarica
- Sykes’s Lark, Galerida deva
- Oriental Skylark, Alauda gulgula
What sets each of these similar-looking birds apart? Read on.
Indian Bushlark, Mirafra erythroptera
The Indian Bushlark is widely distributed across the Indian subcontinent. Found in stony scrub and fallow cultivation, they are often seen perched on short bushes and rocks. The teardrop-shaped streaking on the breast, along with the extensive red in the wing, are typical indicators of the bird (along with the Jerdon’s Bushlark)
The courting display of this bird is a treat to watch. Taking off from its perch, this small bird flies high into the air before parachuting down with its wings held open in a V-shape, singing all the way down to its perch.
Jerdon’s Bushlark, Mirafra affinis
Very similar to the Indian Bushlark in appearance and display, the Jerdon’s Bushlark is a stockier bird with a longer and thicker bill. The spotting on its breast resemble arrowheads. It prefers open areas with shrubs and trees, and is often found on the edges of forests. Unlike the Indian Bushlark, it is often seen perched on trees and wires too.
Singing Bushlark, Mirafra cantillans
Though one of the most widespread species of larks, found through Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, the Singing Bushlark is one of the rarer species of larks in Karnataka (possibly ignored or overlooked). It can be distinguished from the other 2 Bush Larks by smaller beak, less spotting on the breast, less rufous on wing panels and white outer tail feathers.
In the breeding season (around monsoon), large congregations of this species are known from the grasslands and open areas in parts of North-west and North India.
Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark, Eremopterix griseus
Sexual dimorphism sets this species apart from the rest of the larks on this list. The males are strikingly different, a blend of grey and black in colouration, with a black breast and belly. The females are more somber, with paler and more uniform brown plumage. They are also the smallest of the larks of Karnataka, measuring around 12cm.
The undulating display of the male is very interesting. The bird takes off almost vertically, with chirruping calls, reaching a good elevation. It then dives almost straight down with a long whistle.
Rufous-tailed Lark, Ammomanes phoenicura
They can be differentiated from other larks in Karnataka by the rusty-brown colouration, with a stout beak and a rufous tail. In addition to cultivation and open areas, Rufous-tailed Larks also tend to prefer stony outcrops.
Greater Short-toed Lark, Calandrella brachydactyla
Unlike other larks in Karnataka, this is a visitor – a winter migrant – to the Indian subcontinent. They migrate in flocks of hundreds, if not thousands, to grasslands and open country. It is a spectacle to see an entire flock of birds fly around, as they search for food or flee a predator.
Malabar Lark, Galerida malabarica
Malabar Lark is one of three species of larks with prominent crests in Karnataka (the others being Sykes’s Lark and Oriental Skylark). They are distinguished from the other larks by feathers on the head that rise up while displaying (for territory or courtship) or when they are singing.
This species is endemic to India and, as its name suggests, is predominantly found in open areas and cultivation around the Western Ghats. Originally placed along with the Skylarks, the bird is a smaller and browner version of the Crested Lark that breeds in North India. It has white underparts, with streaking on the breast.
Sykes’s Lark, Galerida deva
The Sykes’s Lark is differentiated from the Malabar Lark by its smaller size, stiff upright crest and rufous underparts with less prominent streaking. Another bird that is endemic to India, its distribution is restricted to Central and Western India.
Oriental Skylark, Alauda gulgula
Closely related to the original songster – the Eurasian Skylark – the Oriental Skylark is the most widespread lark across India with 6 different subspecies recognized in the region. The race australis found in Karnataka is more rufous is colouration with heavily streaked upperparts. It is often seen in grasslands, cultivation and coastal mudflats.
During the courtship display, the bird flies high into the air and sings a complex song with rapid wingbeats. Singing from the sky is what probably gives this bird its name – Skylark.
So the next time you are in the countryside, keep your eyes and ears open. You may discover the joys of watching those camouflaged songsters – the larks!
- “A checklist of the birds of Karnataka” by Praveen J, S. Subramanya and Vijay Mohan Raj; Indian Birds (Special Edition) Vol. 12 No. 4&5
- “Birds of the Indian Subcontinent” Second Edition by Richard Gimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp; Oxford University Press; 2011
- “A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka & India: Including Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives” By Bikram Grewal, Bill Harvey, Otto Pfister; Periplus Editions (Hong Kong) Ltd.; 2002
- “Bushlarks, Skylarks, ‘crested’ Larks” – https://birdcount.in/test/bushlarks-skylarks-crested-larks/