Greater short-toed lark (Calandrella brachydactyla)

Also known as: Short-toed lark
French: Alouette calandrelle
GenusCalandrella (1)
SizeLength: 14 cm (2)
Wingspan: 9 cm (3)
Weight22 g (2)

The greater short-toed lark is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A mostly terrestrial bird, the greater short-toed lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) possesses cryptic plumage that helps it blend into its habitat (3). Its upperparts are sandy-grey to brownish-black with dark streaks and the breast is lighter buff (5). It has a short, pointed bill, a flat head with a dark cap, and a short blackish tail. Unlike other lark species, the greater short-toed lark has no conspicuous crest (2) (3).

Male and female greater short-toed larks are very similar in appearance, but juveniles differ by having dark brown feathers with buff fringes and whitish tips on the upperparts (5). There are slight variations in plumage tone between the seven recognised subspecies (5).

The greater short-toed lark can be distinguished from the lesser short-toed lark (Calandrella rufescens), by its simpler song, which consists of high-pitched ‘tchi-tchirrrp’ twittering notes repeated at short intervals, and by its ‘tee-oo’ alarm call (2). It is also able to imitate the songs of other birds (5).

When flying, the greater short-toed lark sweeps over the ground in bold rising and falling movement (3).

The greater short-toed lark has a vast range throughout northwest Africa and southern Europe, stretching east to Mongolia and China (3). The southern subspecies are only partially migratory, while subspecies further north always migrate between breeding and wintering areas (3).

The greater short-toed lark occurs in lowland areas of open sand or stone, as well as in dry mud-flats, steppe, and fields with sparse, low vegetation cover (2) (5).

Foraging alone or in flocks on the ground, the greater short-toed lark uses its bill to dig for food (5). The adults’ diet consists of seeds and insects, such as beetles, grasshoppers and spiders (3). The nestlings are fed only on invertebrates, but fledglings eat more green plant material (5). The greater short-toed lark can go without water for long periods, and has occasionally been observed drinking brackish water (3).

Breeding in dry areas with sparse vegetation, the greater short-toed lark builds its nest on the ground (2). The female chooses the nesting site, which is often just a simple depression in the soil, and lines it with grass, leaves, soft wool and feathers. A small ridge, made of lumps of earth, is placed around the nest for protection (5). The female greater short-toed lark incubates the 3 or 4 creamy-grey eggs for 11 to 13 days (5), and the male helps with feeding the chicks (5). The chicks are often predated in the nest (2), despite the female’s attempts to distract predators (5). The young fledglings leave the nest after 12 to 15 days (5).

After the breeding season, flocks of greater short-toed larks as large as 10,000 individuals gather to prepare for the long migration flight to the winter grounds (2).

Once considered a great delicacy, the greater short-toed lark was historically caught with nets in large numbers (4).

Although the greater short-toed lark is not currently considered threatened, due to its extensive range and large population (5), its numbers are believed to be declining, particularly in Europe (1). In France there was a 20 percent decrease in its numbers between 1970 and 1990, while there was perhaps a 30 percent decrease in Spain from 1990 to 2000 (6). These declines are mainly due to agricultural intensification, such as the increase in crop land, reducing the amount of habitat available to this species (5).

The subspecies Calandrella brachydactyla hungarica is believed to be seriously threatened with extinction. Its numbers have declined drastically since the 1980s, and now only eight to ten breeding pairs are thought to remain (5).

There are no specific conservation measures currently in place for the greater short-toed lark. More intensive studies on the behaviour and habitat of this species need to be undertaken (7), which will help inform future conservation measures.

Find out more about the greater short-toed lark and its conservation:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
  2. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollon, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide. Birds of Britain and Europe. Harper Collins, London.
  3. Simms, E. (1992) British Larks, Pipits and Wagtails. Harper Collins, London.
  4. Ali, S. and Ripley, S.D. (1972) Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Volume 5: Larks to the Grey Hypocolius. Oxford University Press, Bombay.
  5. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  6. BirdLife (November, 2010)
  7. Serrano, D. and Astrain, C. (2005) Microhabitat use and segregation of two sibling species of Calandrella larks during the breeding season: Conservation and management strategies. Biological Conservation, 125(3): 391-397.