Indian Bushlark and Singing Bushlark are very similar species that share many morphological features. Identification can be a real challenge. Luckily, one feature has often served as a shortcut out of this identification conundrum – the presence of white on the outermost tail feathers. Any Indian/Singing Bushlark with ‘white’ in its outermost tail feathers has always been readily identified as a Singing Bushlark. This is because our five main national ornithological references (Table 1) do not indicate the possibility that Indian Bushlark can have white in the tail.
|Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley||Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan: Together with Those of Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Ceylon||1987|
|Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp||Birds of the Indian Subcontinent||1998|
|Krys Kazmierczak||A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent||2000|
|Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp||Birds of the Indian Subcontinent||2011|
|Pamela Rasmussen and John Anderton||Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide||2012|
Table 1: The five main bird guides in India
Our ornithological literature, however, also indicates that Singing Bushlark has almost fully white outermost tail feathers. What then are the bushlarks found around the country that do not have fully white outermost tail feathers but have white restricted to the outer webs? Such birds have been historically identified as Singing Bushlark but have we been correct?
It appears that we have been missing some information all along! Indian Bushlarks can indeed have white outer webs to their outermost tail feathers, but this feature has surprisingly been overlooked in our literature. Or in other words, white on the tail is not diagnostic. How then do we separate Indian Bushlark and Singing Bushlark? In this article, I will take you through the identification of these two species using a series of comparative images.
Singing Bushlark often has a contrasting white throat, inconspicuous to no streaking on the breast, the appearance of a brown breast band, and near-unmarked ear coverts.
Indian Bushlark has very prominent rufous on the wings (hence the alternate name Red-winged Bushlark).
Indian Bushlark is usually more heavily streaked on the upperparts (mantle, nape and crown) than Singing Bushlark. The upperparts of Indian Bushlark are usually tinged with rufous (particularly in the crown) unlike the greyish-brown upperparts of Singing Bushlark.
Indian Bushlark often cocks its tail up, a behaviour that is far less common in Singing Bushlark.
Unlike Indian Bushlark, Singing Bushlark can look very top heavy while singing with the white throat looking puffed out and conspicuous. Singing Bushlark can also appear very long-legged.
And finally, Indian Bushlark has a relatively simple song that includes a series of whistles and trills. Singing Bushlark has an incredibly complex song and has been known to perfectly mimic over 30 bird species! It is a true songster. If either of these Bushlarks are singing, identification will be remarkably easy,
The song of Indian Bushlark – sequences are largely repeated and consists of a series of whistles. Indian Bushlark songs can also contain other combinations of whistles and trills (check video).
The song of Singing Bushlark – considerable variation, mimicry and very few repeated sequences. What other bird calls has it mimicked both in the audio recording and the embedded videos? Do post your thoughts and replies in the comments.
The videos also illustrate several of the characters discussed previously in this article.
Fun fact: Singing Bushlarks in Africa have not been known to include mimicry in their songs!
Habitat and behaviour
Singing Bushlark mainly occurs in short, dense vegetation, a unique habitat type that is mostly provided within its distribution by agriculture like millets, groundnut, and other similar short crops! Unlike Indian Bushlark, it rarely occurs in short/natural grassland or stony flats where Indian Courser and similar grassland specialists are found.
Behaviourally, Singing Bushlark is completely different from the other Mirafra bushlarks within its range. When not singing way up in the sky or from an open perch, it tends to hide in vegetation and can be very shy! When flushed, it tends to fly some distance away, hover above the vegetation for a bit, before settling out of sight again. This behaviour is similar to Richard’s Pipit that rarely sits out in the open and usually settles out of sight in grass clumps.
Variation in plumage of Singing Bushlark
I have described and discussed features that Singing Bushlark typically shows during the breeding season when it is most visible. In non-breeding and immature plumages, it can have some spotting on the ear coverts and prominent spotting/streaking on the breast. Such birds (below), however, can be identified as they behave differently from Indian Bushlark and appear darker and greyer with a less contrasting wing panel.
Both Indian Bushlark and Singing Bushlark can have white on the outermost tail feathers but Indian Bushlark has white restricted to the outer webs whereas these feathers are almost fully white in Singing Bushlark. In field, tail feathers are however rarely visible. Indian Bushlark can be separated from Singing Bushlark using a combination of a number of features: 1) prominent spotting on breast 2) spotting on ear coverts 3) lack of a contrasting white throat and brown breast band 4) contrasting upperparts with heavy streaking 5) contrasting and prominent rufous wings 6) pale upperparts with a rufous cast unlike the greyish-brown upperparts of Singing 7) behaviour of regular tail cocking 8) song 9) shy behaviour of hovering over vegetation and settling out of sight when not actively singing!
While Indian Bushlark is distributed throughout the dry parts of the Indian peninsula, Singing Bushlark is associated with dry regions but is very ‘local’ and not known from many localities around the country. Indian Bushlark is resident whereas the movements of Singing Bushlark are still poorly understood with very few records during winter. Where are the Singing Bushlarks during winter? Why are they so patchily distributed? So many mysteries still to unravel about these enigmatic species.
Happy mystery solving and bushlark watching!