June 30, 2016

Is that a Pipit or a Lark?

By Ramit Singal

Few birds are as confusing to the beginning birder as Pipits and Larks. The first step towards identifying the species within the two families is to be able to tell between a pipit and a lark. Here is a short guide to telling apart these confusing ground-dwelling birds.

Morphology

Pipits and larks are generally confused with each other because they can look very similar in plumage. Both are usually brown, variably streaked both above and on the breast and generally have some pattern on the face.

Paddyfield Pipit – note the streaking on the back and on the breast, a clean facial pattern © Ramit Singal

An Indian Bushlark © Albin Jacob (See in checklist)

Indian Bushlark – plumage wise, similar to above Pipit with streaking on upperparts and on the breast, relatively well defined facial pattern © Albin Jacob (See in checklist)

However, some pipits may also be relatively plain brown – and correspondingly, some larks may appear quite unlike their congeners and look quite plain as well!

Tawny Pipit © Pronoy Baidya (see in checklist)

Tawny Pipit – pale, clean breast and upperparts, overall relatively non-descript with not many markings © Pronoy Baidya (see in checklist)

Rufous-tailed Lark © Noah Strycker (see in checklist)

Rufous-tailed Lark – a very different lark from the rest, relatively much plainer and appears quite rufous © Noah Strycker (see in checklist)

Structure

The best way to visually differentiate larks from pipits is to note the structure of the bird. The key differences are highlighted in the following table:

Pipits Larks
Build Slimmer, lighter Dumpier, heavy-looking
Bill Slender Heavy, thicker (variable)
Wings Narrower Rounder/broader
Tail Longer Shorter
Nostrils Fully exposed Partially exposed (variable)
Crest None Some show a crest

Note: All features may not be true for all species, but all pipit or lark species will show at least 3-4 features respectively.

Note the overall lighter build, slender beak, exposed nostrils, medium-length tail © Ramit Singal

Blyth’s Pipit. Note the overall lighter build, slender beak, exposed nostrils, medium-length tail © Ramit Singal

Note the heavy bill, dumpier looking structure, presence of crest © Vaidehi Gunjal (see in checklist)

Sykes’s (Tawny) Lark. Note the heavy bill, dumpier looking structure, presence of crest, partially exposed nostril © Vaidehi Gunjal (see in checklist)

Tree Pipit. Note the lean build, slender bill, exposed nostrils © Syed Muzamil (See in checklist)

Tree Pipit. Note the lean build, slender bill, exposed nostrils © Syed Muzamil (See in checklist)

Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark. Note the bulky structure, heavy bill, short tail, crouched stance © Prashant Kumar (see in checklist)

Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark. Note the bulky structure, heavy bill, short tail, unexposed nostrils, crouched stance © Prashant Kumar (see in checklist)

Rosy Pipit. Note the longer tail, slim beak, slender structure, upright looking stance © Pranjal J Saikia

Rosy Pipit. Note the longer tail, slim beak, slender structure, upright looking stance, exposed nostrils © Pranjal J Saikia

Jerdon's Bushlark. Note the heavy built, thick bill, short tail © Vinoba Anand (see in checklist)

Jerdon’s Bushlark. Note the bulky structure, thick bill, short tail © Vinoba Anand (see in checklist)

Behaviour

Pipits are active feeders, seen moving around and standing upright often.

Larks, on the other hand, are relatively slower and usually appear to have a crouching stance.

(Note: This is indicative of the pipit’s more insectivorous diet, and the lark’s dietary preference for plant material)

Here are a few videos to illustrate these differences in behaviour:

Paddyfield Pipit – note its active behaviour and movements on the ground

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks99W5E00Jc?rel=0

Greater Short-toed Lark – winter migrants to India, seen here scouring the ground for seeds/bulbs/other plant material.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=dcq8mXx-SjY%3Frel%3D0

Malabar Lark – filmed while it was searching for plant material to feed upon

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chGP5ddbc6A?rel=0

Vocalization

Calls of pipits and larks can be very similar. However most lark songs are more complex, longer than those of the pipits and may even include mimicry!

To illustrate these differences:

Summary

These guidelines should help you with the first step in tackling larks and pipits. The next step is to distinguish between the different species of larks and pipits. That is a more difficult topic and will be covered in future articles!


Header Image: Paddyfield Pipit Anthus rufulus © Subhadra Devi/ Macaulay Library

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Mohan Chandra joshi
Mohan Chandra joshi
4 years ago

Very helpful

Surendhar Boobalan
Surendhar Boobalan
4 years ago

Highly useful. Thank you so much.

Yogesh Parshar
Yogesh Parshar
4 years ago

Pilots often wag/pump their tails.

Larks make beautiful aerial displays with songs.

Arabinda Pal
Arabinda Pal
4 years ago

Worth reading.. It will help me a lot…

Shiv Kumar
Shiv Kumar
4 years ago

Thanks a lot.. great help in deed.

Biswajit Chakdar
Biswajit Chakdar
4 years ago

Thank you for the information..

Mandar Bhagat
Mandar Bhagat
4 years ago

very helpful

Prathamesh Desai
Prathamesh Desai
4 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing really helpful

Shibi Moses
Shibi Moses
4 years ago

Pipit

Praveen
Praveen
4 years ago

Worthful.

Anuja cambatta
Anuja cambatta
4 years ago

Thanks for showing the difference in such a simple way. I love the chart and the videos help in understanding

Shaju Thomas
4 years ago

Excellent learning material. Congrats.
Shaju Thomas

Hakimuddin F Saify
Hakimuddin F Saify
4 years ago

Very informative! Specially the tabulation of major differences…

Dr. Ramappa Lokesha
Dr. Ramappa Lokesha
4 years ago

some serious observations need to be made for larks and pipits in most places. ill represented

Kalpana Jayaraman
Kalpana Jayaraman
4 years ago

Very comprehensive and useful!

Mohit Sahu
Mohit Sahu
4 years ago

Nicely desdribe

Mittal Gala
Mittal Gala
4 years ago

Thanks for this information. A useful guide

Ketki
Ketki
4 years ago

Useful and
Simple description of both species

trackback

[…] you’ve had some practice over the past month(s) in telling apart larks from pipits. In this article, we’ll try and give some tips to tell between 3 different groups of larks and […]

Lobzang Visuddha
Lobzang Visuddha
4 years ago

Indeed, a wonderful study. Will help many birders

S Thyagarajan
S Thyagarajan
4 years ago

I have never had difficulty in distinguishing between pipits and larks, the erect stance and calls of larks alone being sufficient; it is between the pipits that there is always a problem. Thanks for the notes

Bird Count India
Bird Count India
4 years ago
Reply to  S Thyagarajan

Thank you. We have a pipit series coming up in the not-too-distant future!

K.Mrutyumjaya Rao
K.Mrutyumjaya Rao
3 years ago

Thank you very much. Very Helpful..

Ravi
Ravi
3 years ago

Thank you for the information..it’s really very helpful.

Lakshmikant Rajaram Neve
Lakshmikant Rajaram Neve
2 years ago

Good one

Patrick
Patrick
1 year ago

Thank you, this was so helpful

Bharathi Ram Kumar
Bharathi Ram Kumar
1 month ago

Striking differences exposed and very useful.

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