When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of the skylark (Alauda arvensis) 'Hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never were't', he may well have had the exalted song of this species in mind. On a warm summer day, the sky can seem full of birdsong as the skylark seems to hang suspended somewhere overhead. This territorial display can last for as long as five minutes as the bird reaches the zenith of its flight and then slowly descends. The sexes are alike and the birds are streaky brown on the back and buff-white below with dark-brown streaking on the upper breast. The tail is brown with outer-tail feathers of white. There is a small up-turned crest on the back of the head, visible only when raised
The skylark nests between April and August, and successful pairs may raise up to four broods in one breeding season. Three to five eggs are laid, incubated by the female for 11 days. The nest is always on the ground, and is usually very well concealed within vegetation. The young birds leave the nest when eight to ten days old, but remain dependant on their parents for a further one to two weeks. The male performs his song flights throughout the breeding season. In winter, skylarks move away from upland areas, but large flocks occur on lowland farmland, often in conjunction with other species such as meadow pipits. Stubble fields provide the most important winter food source but set-aside can be useful, particularly if cereal stubbles are in short supply.
The skylark's breeding range covers all of Europe and the temperate zone of Asia as far east as Japan and the Kamchatka peninsular. Breeding birds are mainly resident in the UK, although numbers are swelled in winter by visitors from the continent. Although breeding skylarks have declined by more than 50 percent over the last 25 years, the bird is still widespread in the UK, in both the uplands and lowlands.
Skylarks utilise a wide range of open habitats including saltmarsh and coastal grazing land, arable farmland and rough grazing in the uplands. The majority of foraging is carried out in short vegetation and once crops reach a certain height in summer, they become less suitable for skylarks.
The skylark is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Protected under the Wildlife and CountrysideAct (1981), as amended and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. Listed under the EC Birds Directive
The move to more intensive farming methods is thought to be the main cause of the decline in the skylark. The chief reason is the move from spring to autumn sown crops because, in spring, these crops quickly become too tall and dense for skylarks. Crops sown in spring are still short and thin enough to provide suitable nesting and foraging habitat. Autumn sowing has led to a decline in stubble fields available during the winter months and so reduced the availability of grain and weed seeds. Increasing use of agri-chemicals has reduced the invertebrate populations on which the birds depend for food in the breeding season.
Despite a substantial reduction in population size, the distribution of the skylark has remained fairly constant and the species is still one of our most widespread and familiar birds. The skylark is the subject of an action plan managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), with other partners including English Nature, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Joint Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC). The objectives of the plan are to stabilise the skylark population, and maintain the present breeding numbers of around two million pairs. The plan aims to achieve this by encouraging more environmentally friendly methods of farming, including a reduction in the use of agrichemicals. Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is required, however, if these targets are to be met. The RSPB is currently trialling a project to encourage farmers to leave 'scrapes', or bare patches, when drilling crops in autumn, to improve the spring nesting conditions for skylarks. These 'scrapes' would be made by lifting the seed drill, so that the sward height preferred by the birds would be achieved. These potential nesting sites would be created away from the vehicle access 'tramlines' and the edge of the field, as these tend to be patrolled by potential ground predators.
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