Last week on one of those rare sunny afternoons, I was chatting with a friend who is new to Whidbey. She’d just explored Ebey’s Landing, taken in some live music and was awash in the wonder of our island. Out popped, “I’m happy as a lark!”
Then, remembering my passion for birds, she asked, “Why do we say that?”
I explained that larks are amazing songsters and can sing while flying. If you’re a trivia buff, you might know that a group of larks is called an “exaltation.”
Later I remembered that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared that the Skylark’s rhapsodic song was so unworldly, the lark must be something more than a mere bird.
I looked up his poem “To a Skylark” and found this excerpt.
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
There are many birds that sing beautifully. What in particular, I wondered, enchanted Shelley?
There are no larks commonly seen on Whidbey Island, but one species lives close by and two more occasionally flutter onto our island.
One “lark” that visits our grasslands and open beach areas during migration is the Western Meadow Lark. This brownish-backed, yellow-breasted singer with black, V-shaped collar is not a true lark but categorized with blackbirds and starlings. You might see one around Dugualla Bay, Ebey’s Prairie or Deer Lagoon.
During nesting season, the male’s complex, melodious and exuberant song is beautiful in its own right, but lasting a mere 1½ seconds, it can’t compare with a real lark’s song.
The only true lark native to North America is the Horned Lark. This seven-inch bird sports a yellow and black facial pattern and small tufts of feathers or “horns” on either side of its head. More commonly seen during breeding season in higher elevations, this lark prefers open areas of short grass or barren ground. I’ve seen small flocks of these birds on cultivated fields near Coupeville.
In true lark fashion, Horned Larks are very early risers and begin singing well before dawn. The phrase “up with the larks” reflects this bird’s habit.
These birds sing from a perch and also perform an aerial display song used to attract a mate and defend territory. The bird flies upward on a steep 60-degree angle to a height of nearly 500 feet above the ground. It spreads its wings and tail and glides down, emitting a liquid, rolling trill, which might last up to five minutes.
But Shelley wasn’t referring to either of these birds in his poem. It was the European Sky Lark that captured his imagination. It’s no wonder; this bird sings persistently in flight and sustains a song for up to 30 minutes at a time. This small bird is cryptically colored in brown streaking and whitish underparts and a short crest.
Shelley wasn’t the only one enamored by this Eurasian singer. British naturalists have successfully introduced Skylarks to various places around the globe including Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands.
Various attempts have been made to establish Skylark populations in North America. The only place where this species has taken hold is just north of here, around Victoria on Vancouver Island. First introduced in the early 1900s, by the 1960s the population numbered around 1,000 birds with a small outpost on San Juan Island.
Skylarks nest on the ground in open, unobstructed fields, which are often mowed during spring and summer.
As the urbanization on Vancouver and San Juan Islands constricted suitable habitat, the population decreased. By the mid-1990s, only 100 Skylarks remained. It is unlikely that any nesting pairs remain on San Juan Island.
Shakespeare also made poetic reference to larks. He used the early morning song of the Skylark to portray one of the most heartrending ornithological discussions in literature. Nearing the end of their night together, Juliet tries to convince Romeo that the bird they are hearing is a nightingale, a nighttime singer, which means that they have more time together.
But Romeo correctly argues, “It was the lark, the herald of the morn.” Dawn has come and the lovers must part.
Still, like my new Whidbey friend, we’ll always think of larks as happy music makers. And the lark’s aerial display as an attempt to return to the heavenly home that Shelley attributes to them.