Is that a Pipit or a Lark? 22


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:

PipitsLarks
BuildSlimmer, lighterDumpier, heavy-looking
BillSlenderHeavy, thicker (variable)
WingsNarrowerRounder/broader
TailLongerShorter
NostrilsFully exposedPartially exposed (variable)
CrestNoneSome 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

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

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!


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