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The Skylark's Plight Is No Lark

Updated on August 4, 2015

Eurasian Lark


Notes from a Lancashire Countryman

If ever a bird gained the attention of English men the skylark would surely be the one. It has been the inspiration to poets and adored by almost everyone I am acquainted with. An example of this is the descriptions associated with the bird and in particular its song. Here I give a few examples.

" A little feathered jewel suspended in mid-heaven-a sweet voiced minstrel "

" Beautiful notes cascaded down like silver rain "

" He sings a song of sweetness, happy and full in spring "

" They enliven a visit to this locality with their cascading notes from heaven"

" --In their element revelling in the blue cloudless sky "

"-- He is joyful with the spirit of spring"

The list goes on and on. The skylark is a small brown song bird with a lighter plumage beneath. It has a short crest { this is not always raised} the tail feathers are white at the tip. The plumage is anything but spectacular. The bird has stolen our hearts with its song as we have seen. The display song is a rapid flow of notes which may be delivered for up to five hours without a break. They often attain such a height that they are invisible to the naked eye, yet the torrent of notes can still be clearly heard.

Yet, sadly, the bird like so many other species is suffering a population decline in the U.K.. Surveys have revealed that from 1969-1991 the decline was over 54% on farmland. This represented a loss of 1.6 million pairs in just 23 years, and according to the Bio-Diversity Audit it was the biggest loss of any species numerically, during that period. because of that dramatic decline a Species Action Plan was formulated for the species. At that time, 1999, its national status was described thus-" at the time of the first Breeding Bird Atlas, the skylark was the most widely distributed bird in Britain.2 The losses described above have not affected its distribution and they are still widespread throughout the U.K., so the loss is down to population numbers only. It is still a widespread breeding bird in the north west of England and although there is no data, surveys seem to suggest that the decline on lowland farmland has mirrored the national decline.

Skylarks are one of the prime species used as an indicator of the state of lowland farmland species. Surveys also revealed that the main concentration and highest densities appear to be in my neck of the woods in west Lancashire, and the southern Pennines. At that time there was an estimated 7,000 pairs in Lancashire and North Merseyside. However, populations in upland Lancashire are important for they appear to be suffering declines in the manner of lowland farm birds.

The birds' song as mentioned is rendered from way up high. The descent is carried out in slow spiral movements. the wings are held extended at quite still, the song is still often continues on its descent to the ground. The skylark nests on the ground, normally in open situations, but now and again may choose to place the nest within the shelter of vegetation. The nest is usually a scraped hollow in the ground, lined with grass. the eggs that number from 3-5 are produced during April or May. The eggs are of a pale background colour heavily speckled with brown and olive. The dull brown plumage pays dividends for the species during the nesting period for the hen is well camouflaged as she sits on the nest for around 11 days to incubate her eggs. { incidentally this is the shortest incubation period of any British bird}.

The chicks are ready to leave the nest within 7-9 days and remain concealed in the vegetation close to the nest relying on their camouflage to protect them from predators, for it is 21 days before they are capable of flying with any conviction. Because of their vulnerability at this stage in their lives the parents are very cautious not to attract attention to the locality of the nest or young. The bird will alight some distance away and then run through the vegetation to feed them. Insects are the main stay of the chicks diet essential to provide the protein they require to grow quickly. The adults will depend on insects and caterpillars during the summer, but change their diet to include seeds and cereal grain throughout the winter. During the period just after the breeding season July-August, the birds undertake a full moult replacing their bedraggled feathers. The young will loose their soft spotty plumage and take on the plumage of adult birds.

Most English sky larks do not migrate to sunnier climes they tend to gather at coastal marshes during the coldest months where they may well be joined by an influx of birds from northern Europe. Should the weather remain favourable during this time they will also be found on any stubble fields that may be available to them, where they etch out a living feeding on the seeds of winter weeds.

When the weather of spring allows much needed warmth the skylarks will once again burst into song as they mark out their territories. This vibrant song will occur an hour or so before daylight, hence the sayings of " up with the lark " and " as happy as a lark".

Skylark singing,courtesy of ESL and Popular culture

" up with the Lark"

 Happy as a lark. picture from F.C.I.T.
Happy as a lark. picture from F.C.I.T.
 The plumage of the skylark is not spectacular but is a very useful camouflage in vegetation. Photograph by Daniel Pettersson.
The plumage of the skylark is not spectacular but is a very useful camouflage in vegetation. Photograph by Daniel Pettersson.

Why the Decline ?

So what is attributed to their decline ? The main factor seems to be the current trend of sowing Autumn crops as opposed to the traditional sowing of spring crops. Skylarks nest in crops and vegetation less than 25cm tall. Thus spring grown crops allowed them 2 or 3 broods per season. Conversely autumn sown crops only allow them one brood per season before the crop is to tall for the birds liking. Studies have revealed that one brood per season is not enough to maintain population numbers, due to predation and other losses. The situation is made even worse by farmers moving away from mixed farming systems. again this denies the bird alternative nesting sites.

The trend towards autumn sown crops also deny the birds vital stubble fields. Within weeks and sometimes within days of the crop being harvested the soil is turned brown by the plough. another cause for the lack of their breeding success has been the intensive use of agro-chemicals on farm land which diminishes the skylarks food supplies -insects and weed seeds.

In pastoral situations the switch from hay to silage has caused many more fatalities because the crop is now cut down during the breeding season thus destroying nests and leaving others exposed to predators. Intensive grazing is another factor the grass being to short for breeding purposes. breeding birds have also been denied breeding sites due to tree planting on swards of grassland. What is being done to help the species?


Many species of bird benefit from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme { where this is available} which encourages field margin habitat, alas this does not benefit the skylark who prefers open areas of land. The Broad Objective at the outset of the Lancashire Species Action Plan for the bird included a need to establish a base line information centre for the birds' abundance and local distribution throughout the birds current range in the county.

To establish a centralised skylark data base to be used to enable access to population changes. To identify high concentrations of breeding skylarks. To identify high concentrations of wintering skylarks. To ensure that breeding skylarks remain present in good numbers throughout the range. Seek to ensure the sympathetic management of farm habitat for the bird. To save high population habitat from fragmentation due to development and other threats.

The plans are linked to other Species Action plans which are the Brown Hare, Lapwing, Reed bunting, Song Thrush and the Habitat Action Plan for Arable Farmland. Latest figures from the British Trust of Ornithology is summarised here. In 2005 better population performances were recorded in areas with extensive winter stubble, presumably because overwinter survival rates were relatively high. Breeding success per nesting attempt increased during the decline {1999 } but since 2000,  nest losses have apparently increased and previous gains in clutch and brood sizes have been lost. Numbers have fallen widely in Europe since 1980.

So their plight goes on. Updates will be added to the site when available

UK conservation update September 2014

According to the latest Breeding Bird Survey organised by the British Trust for Ornithology {annually for last 20 tears} there was further decline in the numbers of Skylarks of 24% between 1995-2012. Thus the worrying trend continues.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Eiddwen, thank you so much for your kind and appreciated comments. When they come from a fellow admirer of nature they are all the more welcome. Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      8 years ago from Wales

      I really loved this hub. Being a lover of all the precious gems that nature gives us I didn't stop until i had come to the end. I will be back in a bit to read more of your work. You write so naturally and I think that is so important. I'm voting it up and bookmarking it.Thank you D.A.L for sharing. Take care.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      sendflower2009, thank you for your visit and for your comments.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great info and nice pictures. Thanks.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Thanks Izzy M starlings are declining in numbers in the UK, as a whole. They were once considered a pest species but now alas in common with house sparrow they have been added to the list of conservation concern. Hope to do a hub soon about this.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Thanks Izzy M starlings are declining in numbers in the UK, as a whole. They were once considered a pest species but now alas in common with house sparrow they have been added to the list of conservation concern. Hope to do a hub soon about this.

    • IzzyM profile image


      8 years ago from UK

      Great Hub as always D.A.L:)

      You always seem to write about interesting things.I had no idea the skylark numbers were in decline. Just for interest, have you noticed a loss of starlings in your area? They seem to have disappeared overnight from Scotland (W).

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Thank you for taking the time to read it. It seems nature needs our help now more than ever,after the damage we have done. Nice to meet you Teresa.

    • Teresa Laurente profile image

      Maria Teresa Rodriguez - Laurente 

      8 years ago from San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.

      Very informative. Eager to learn more and updates. More power.


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