Summit Outside: Colorado’s state bird: the lark bunting |

Summit Outside: Colorado’s state bird: the lark bunting

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily

The lark bunting was designated the state bird of Colorado in 1931. Why was this bird chosen to be the Colorado state bird? The answer I found was that the lark bunting was chosen because their plumage is distinct and it was thought their nature fit in with the spirit of Colorado.

So what is unique about this bird that it should merit being the state bird? Colorado is known for its mountains and yet this bird is primarily in the prairies, though it is sometimes found at elevations of 8,000-9,000 feet. We might see them in neighboring counties like Park.

One unique characteristic is that the males take on the appearance of formal wear, with a striking black body and crisp white wing patches during mating season. The rest of the year it is a grey-brown color, looking pretty much like a common sparrow. It is the only bird of the sparrow family that “changes his feathers” so to speak.

Another unique characteristic is the male lark bunting’s spectacular courtship flight while warbling and trilling a distinctive mating song. A naturalist once described this flight as : “Lark buntings shot into the air, usually from the ground, as though propelled from guns, pouring out the most infectious and passionate song, perhaps, sung by any bird in the United States. There were at least a hundred singing males, and with them there were, no doubt, a similar number of silent and inconspicuous females feeding on the ground.”

When the birds sing in flight they rise directly into the air with rapid wing beats, and at the summit of their ascent (10-30 ft.), they pause and begins to descend by a series of awkward, jerky motions of their extended wings. The motion has been describes as more like that of a butterfly than of a bird. Sometimes the wings are set at the apex of the flight and are often upturned over the back in an acute V.

The song has been described as a weet, weet, wt, wt, wt, notes between the hurried warble of the bobolink, and the melody of the sky lark. The lark bunting has been described as the sweetest songsters of the prairie.

To the farmer, their arrival means settled warm weather, and everything subject to frost may be planted safely. “We get our corn ground ready, and then wait for the buntings to appear.”

The lark bunting is also known as a prairie bobolink or white-winged blackbird. It is a relatively easy bird to identify in the field. Both males and females are roughly six inches with a pale, finch-like beak. The females and non-breeding males have a typical sparrow-like appearance, but distinguishable from similar species by the distinctive beak and white belly with heavy gray, brown and black streaks running lengthwise.

The bill is light blue, the upper mandible somewhat dusky along the ridge; the feet and claws reddish-brown. The male bird is black with snowy-white wing patches and edgings, and outer tail feathers. In winter the male bird changes to gray-brown like the female bird, but the chin stays black and the black belly feathers retain white edgings.

They forage on the ground, mainly eating insects in summer and seeds in winter; they sometimes take short flights in pursuit of insects. Outside of the nesting season, they often feed in flocks.

The courtship period of the lark bunting is in the approximately two-week period between their arrival in flocks and their gradual dispersal to the nesting areas. Once a mate has been selected, both partners engage in building a nest. The nest is a simple, cupped depression scratched out on the ground, usually under low-lying branches or within the thicket of a shrub. Within the depression, the nest is made of grass, stems and fine roots, lined with very fine grasses or bits of hair or fur.

The female lays two to six pale blue eggs, and does most of the incubating while the male stands guard over the nest. After 12 days, the eggs hatch. Young lark buntings, mostly bald and helpless, require a great deal of care from both parents.

The lark bunting often comes to drink out of water tanks provided for livestock. The tank can be a dangerous place as large numbers of buntings often drown in the tanks, especially in those containing mats of algae.

The lark bunting flocks arrive in April in Colorado and inhabit the plains regions and areas up to 8,000 feet in elevation. They fly south again in September.

Population numbers for the lark bunting are known to fluctuate widely from year to year, but currently seem to be on a downward trend. Surveys indicate that lark bunting populations have steadily declined at a rate of 2.5 percent per year in Colorado between 1966 and 2003. This appears to be a general trend for grassland birds as habitat is used up for human developments. As grasshoppers make up a significant portion of the lark bunting diet, the use of the pesticides is thought to play a role in the decline of the species.

The lark bunting, the state bird of Colorado, has been described thus: “Our Troubadour of the Plains is gentle of manner and pleasingly sociable among his fellows. He lives a beautiful family and community life. Amiability is a characteristic trait.” Is this the nature and spirit of Coloradans?

Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.

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