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.
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.
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!
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:
|Build||Slimmer, lighter||Dumpier, heavy-looking|
|Bill||Slender||Heavy, thicker (variable)|
|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.
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
Greater Short-toed Lark – winter migrants to India, seen here scouring the ground for seeds/bulbs/other plant material.
Malabar Lark – filmed while it was searching for plant material to feed upon
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:
- Across most parts of the country, this Paddyfield Pipit song is often heard in spring and summer.
- The Oriental Skylark song is a remarkable mix of various complex notes and mimicry.
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!