‘All hail to thee, blithe spirit!’ wrote the poet. BILL NAYLOR profiles a species that’s inspired generations of admirers
UNLIKE most songbirds, which choose a high perch from which to broadcast their songs, the skylark (Alauda arvensis) flies at a high altitude, hoping to impress a female with the fitness required to simultaneously fly and produce quality vocals. Usually seen high in the sky, the skylark is assumed to be a small bird, but it is 18cm (7in) long – the size of a small thrush. Skylarks can sing on the ground, but are more famous for singing while flying.
This aerial songster would appear to be the most unlikely British species to be kept in captivity, but it adapts remarkably well, and is regularly bred every year by UK British bird breeders. Breeders are able to enjoy the song of one of the few British birds that sings almost throughout the year. In the 19th century, skylarks were home entertainment (see “Victorian values”, page 21) and every grand house had at least one.
It was introduced into Australia, New Zealand and the USA, and in Victorian times in North America it was the most popular cage bird, until the budgerigar pushed it off the top perch.
The sexes of skylarks are similar, but the males have stouter bodies and broader wings assisting them to hover – even when chased by birds of prey, they continue to sing. Only foggy and stormy weather will ground them – and even then they will carry on singing from the grass.
Small aviaries do not suit skylarks – they require a spacious structure with an area of coarse uncut grass. Low-growing shrubs such as box, gorse, or butcher’s broom will attract insects. When not in flight larks are ground-dwelling, and in an aviary will spend a great deal of time foraging in a similar manner to quail.
Pairs form in winter or spring, and the breeding season usually commences in mid-April. The male then circles the hen fluttering his wings prior to mating.
The skylark acquired the name of “deceiver”, because it never flies directly to or from its nest. Instead it approaches and leaves the nest skulking through a tunnel in the vegetation. The woven grass nest is usually constructed in a depression made by a cow or horse hoof – digging a heel into a grassy location can create a nest site. Bird-catchers used this method to entice larks to nest then marked the location.
The hen alone incubates the four to six speckled eggs for 11 days, which is the shortest incubation period of any British resident bird. If a clutch is lost, she will lay again within a week, and three clutches per season is normal. Later clutches usually have more eggs.
The mottled fledglings are reared in the wild on caterpillars, worms, spiders and other invertebrates. In captivity chicks have been reared successfully on mealworms dusted with calcium. They are maintained throughout the year on a softbill diet, but will also eat brassica and other small seeds, grated cheese and softbill mixtures. The young leave the nest after eight days and the male usually cares for them because the hen has commenced laying another clutch.
The youngsters hide in the grass being unable, or reluctant to fly until they are about 16 days old. The fledglings gain independence two weeks later.
In winter wild skylarks feed mainly on weed seeds in open fields and any insects that frequent those areas. Most skylarks are resident birds, but some fly south in autumn, when skylarks from Scotland and from northern Europe arrive in Britain.
Since the 1980s, the European skylark population has declined by half, almost entirely in intensively farmed areas.
In the UK, skylarks are unable to breed prolifically, the ability that prevented its population suffering when it was relentlessly hunted for food and sport.
The switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown crops causes the problem. In intensively farmed areas, skylarks prefer to nest among low-growing crops, but are unable to have more than one clutch, since by May the vegetation is too high.
Happily, the UK now has an environmental stewardship scheme, which rewards farmers who set aside uncultivated “skylark plots”, enabling them to rear more than one clutch per season.
Did you know?
THE skylark’s singing ability is not the only reason for its popularity. At one time it was shot for sport, and for the table. Some people even believed they could acquire singing ability by consuming lark’s tongues.
In Cyprus and other European countries where skylarks are among the 500 million migrating birds illegally shot every year, it’s not unusual to see jars of pickled skylarks, and other produce containing larks, in shops and restaurants.
Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture, working in zoos, gardens and museums.