Species Profile

Lark Bunting

Scientific Name: Calamospiza melanocorys
Taxonomy Group: Birds
COSEWIC Range: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: April 2017
COSEWIC Status: Threatened
COSEWIC Status Criteria: Meets Endangered, A2b, but designated Threatened, A2b, because the species is not at imminent risk of extirpation.
COSEWIC Reason for Designation: This grassland songbird is at the northern edge of its range in the Canadian Prairies. It is nomadic, with breeding populations shifting considerably from year to year to track favourable conditions across the regional landscape, seeking peak abundance of grasshoppers. Population estimates therefore fluctuate substantially and complicate the estimation of short-term trends, but long-term data show a decline of 98% since 1970. Over most of the past decade, the trend has remained strongly negative. Conversion of grassland habitat and insecticide use are believed to be the primary threats to this species.
COSEWIC History of Status Designation: Designated Threatened in April 2017.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Threatened
Date of Listing (yyyy-mm-dd): 2019-05-22

Please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only. For the most up to date and accurate list of species listed under the Species at Risk Act, please see the Justice Laws Website.

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Quick Links: | Description | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | National Recovery Program | Documents

Description

Lark Bunting is a large chunky sparrow with a short tail and relatively large bill. Males have a distinctive black and white breeding plumage, but resemble females in the non-breeding season. Females are greyish-brown with black streaking on their upperparts and dark brown wings with a whitish patch. Juveniles are similar to females in pattern, but are buff-coloured with more streaking. No subspecies have been described for the species and it is the only member of its genus. Lark Bunting is the state bird of Colorado. [Updated by COSEWIC - Apr, 2017]

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Distribution and Population

Lark Bunting is restricted to breeding in the grasslands of west-central North America, from the southern Canadian prairies through the Great Plains of the central US into northern Mexico. In Canada, Lark Buntings are found in southeastern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, and southwestern Manitoba. Lark Buntings spend the non-breeding season in the southwest US and north-central Mexico. The total global breeding population of Lark Buntings is estimated to be 10 million individuals, with approximately 160,000 individuals breeding in Canada. Between 1970 and 2014, Lark Buntings declined by approximately 3.2% per year across North America and 8.6% per year in Canada, amounting to cumulative losses of 77% and 98%, respectively. Rates of decline have accelerated more recently, with a 6% per year decline across North America and a 14% per year decline in Canada between 2005 and 2015; the species is projected to lose half of its overall remaining population over the next 16 years. However, the inter-annual variability in Lark Bunting distribution and abundance caused by the highly nomadic nature of the species may result in misleading snapshots of short-term regional population trends. An examination of rolling 10-year trends in Canada (in which one point per year represents the average annual percent change over the previous10-year period) shows a tendency toward strongly negative trends over both the short- (2005-2015) and long-term (1980-2015), although there is considerable variability over time. Interpolating from the long-term decline, the decline of the Canadian population over the past decade is estimated to be 59%.[Updated by COSEWIC - Apr, 2017]

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Habitat

Lark Buntings occur in a variety of grassland habitats, including shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie, weedy fallow fields, pastures, and croplands. They prefer habitat with a combination of grass, shrubby vegetation and bare ground for nesting. Shrubs or tall grasses near the nest provide shading and concealment from predators. In Canada, the species appears to use managed agricultural areas such as hayfields, cultivated grasslands and roadside ditches, in addition to native grasslands. During the non-breeding season, Lark Buntings are found in flat open areas including plains, cropland, fields and desert flats.[Updated by COSEWIC - Apr, 2017]

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Biology

Lark Buntings are believed to nest once per year, laying 3-5 eggs per clutch. The mean number of young fledged per nest ranges from 1.2 to 3.1 depending on habitat type. Lark Buntings have evolved several adaptations to deal with the environmental instability that characterizes their grassland habitat. They are highly nomadic from year to year, a behaviour which appears to have evolved to track favourable habitat conditions across a changing landscape. Lark Buntings also time nesting to coincide with peak abundance of grasshoppers, a major component of their diet. Nest-site selection is linked to minimizing heat stress for eggs and nestlings, as well as for the dark-plumaged incubating male. Once chicks leave the nest, male and female parents divide the brood and continue parental care separately, a strategy that reduces predation and increases foraging efficiency, especially during droughts. Lark Buntings are frequent hosts of Brown-headed Cowbirds but do not appear to have evolved any avoidance strategies against this brood parasite. Numerous predators feed on Lark Buntings, including owls, raptors, cats, Coyotes, ground squirrels, weasels, and snakes. Lark Buntings evolved with American Bison and other large native herbivores on their breeding grounds, and depend to some degree on grazing to maintain their habitat, particularly in taller grasslands. [Updated by COSEWIC - Apr, 2017]

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Threats

Little is known about threats specific to the Canadian Lark Bunting population. Over much of the Great Plains, habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation due to agriculture, urbanization and resource extraction are considered the primary threats to the species, along with effects of pesticides. Grassland habitat is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. In Canada, over 70% of the prairie landscape has been degraded or lost since European settlement due primarily to agriculture and urbanization, and much of the remainder is highly fragmented. Although some Lark Buntings breed in agricultural landscapes, their success may be lower in these habitats due to plowing, mowing and pesticide application. Pesticides may be of serious concern to Lark Buntings not only through direct lethal effects, but also through depleting populations of prey such as grasshoppers. Oil and gas development on the prairies has also contributed to habitat loss and fragmentation for Lark Buntings, and associated sensory disturbance is also a concern. An increase in wind and solar farms poses a growing threat. Associated power lines can facilitate the presence of avian predators and cowbirds that pose threats to Lark Bunting survival and productivity. Climate change is predicted to be an increasing threat for Lark Buntings. Continued warming, coupled with more frequent and intense droughts and large storm events, is likely to negatively affect the species. Lark Buntings are expected to lay fewer eggs, and have lower egg and chick survival under these conditions, while flooding from extreme rainfall may also lead to greater adult mortality. A number of limiting factors make Lark Buntings susceptible to decline. They rely heavily on the availability of vegetative cover to minimize thermal stress while nesting. They are sensitive to drought conditions, when their main food (grasshoppers) is less abundant, and they experience increased competition with other grassland bird species and a resultant lower rate of recruitment. Conversely, they are also vulnerable to heavy rainfall events on the breeding grounds, and to fluctuations in seed availability on their wintering grounds. [Updated by COSEWIC - Apr, 2017]

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Protection

Federal Protection

The Lark Bunting is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

5 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Assessment and status report on the Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys) in Canada (2018-01-17)

    Lark Bunting is a large chunky sparrow with a short tail and relatively large bill. Males have a distinctive black and white breeding plumage, but resemble females in the non-breeding season. Females are greyish-brown with black streaking on their upperparts and dark brown wings with a whitish patch. Juveniles are similar to females in pattern, but are buff-coloured with more streaking.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Lark Bunting (2018-01-18)

    This grassland songbird is at the northern edge of its range in the Canadian Prairies. It is nomadic, with breeding populations shifting considerably from year to year to track favourable conditions across the regional landscape, seeking peak abundance of grasshoppers. Population estimates therefore fluctuate substantially and complicate the estimation of short-term trends, but long-term data show a decline of 98% since 1970. Over most of the past decade, the trend has remained strongly negative. Conversion of grassland habitat and insecticide use are believed to be the primary threats to this species.

Orders

  • Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act (Volume 153, Number 11, 2019) (2019-05-29)

    Biodiversity is rapidly declining worldwide as species become extinct. Today’s extinction rate is estimated to be between 1 000 and 10 000 times higher than the natural rate. Biodiversity is positively related to ecosystem productivity, health and resiliency (i.e. the ability of an ecosystem to respond to changes or disturbances). Given the interdependency of species, a loss of biodiversity can lead to decreases in ecosystem function and services (e.g. natural processes such as pest control, pollination, coastal wave attenuation, temperature regulation and carbon fixing). These services are important to the health of Canadians, and also have important ties to Canada’s economy. Small changes within an ecosystem resulting in the loss of individuals and species can therefore result in adverse, irreversible and broad-ranging effects.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report 2016 to 2017 (2017-10-24)

    Over the past year COSEWIC re-examined the status of 40 wildlife species; of these, the majority (78 %) were reassessed at the same or lower level of risk. Of a total of 73 species assessed 11 were assigned the status of Not at Risk (8 re-assessments and 3 new assessments). To date and with the submission of this report, COSEWIC’s assessments now include 735 wildlife species in various risk categories including 321 Endangered, 172 Threatened, 219 Special Concern and 23 Extirpated (i.e. - no longer found in the wild in Canada). In addition 16 species have been assessed as Extinct, 58 have been designated as Data Deficient and 186 were assessed and assigned Not at Risk status.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act: Terrestrial Species January 2018 (2018-01-26)

    The Government of Canada is committed to preventing the disappearance of wildlife species at risk from our lands. As part of its strategy for realizing that commitment, on June 5, 2003, the Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species provided for under SARA, also called the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Extirpated, Endangered and Threatened species on Schedule 1 benefit from the protection afforded by the prohibitions and from recovery planning requirements under SARA. Special Concern species benefit from its management planning requirements. Schedule 1 has grown from the original 233 to 555 wildlife species at risk. In 2017, final listing decisions were made for 44 terrestrial species and 15 aquatic species. Of these 59 species, 35 were new additions, sixteen were reclassifications, three had a change made to how they are defined, two were removed from Schedule 1, one was referred back to COSEWIC for further evaluation and two were the object of ‘do not list’ decisions. In 2017, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, the Governor in Council approved listing proposals for 45 wildlife species. It is proposed that 21 species be added to Schedule 1, 11 be reclassified, 12 would have a change made to how they are defined, and one would be referred back to COSEWIC for further evaluation. The listing proposals were published in Canada Gazette, part I for a 30-day public comment period and final listing decisions for all 45 species are expected by August of 2018. Please submit your comments by May 22, 2018, for terrestrial species undergoing normal consultations and by October 22, 2018, for terrestrial species undergoing extended consultations. For a description of the consultation paths these species will undergo, please visit the Species at Risk Public Registry (SAR) website.
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