A stressful drive along US-34 from Lincoln to Grand Island this afternoon, thanks to a snowstorm last night and this morning—not that the highway itself was snowed in. Indeed, the fact that it was so well cleared was the problem, as flocks of horned larks (Eremophila alpestris, known in Europe as the shore lark) had abandoned the open fields to congregate on the shoulder of the roadway. I drove past—or rather through, as they flushed for every approaching vehicle and darted every which way—literally hundreds of flocks, each composed of hundreds of birds. I slowed for each flock, which made the trip longer and no doubt annoyed the drivers behind me, but evidently not everyone did slow down: the highway was littered with dozens of roadkilled larks. The carnage reminded me, strangely enough, of Christmas morning, after the kids have opened their presents but before anyone has cleaned up all the little bits of brightly colored paper.
It might seem odd to some that the larks would keep returning to the roadway when it is so obviously dangerous, but the fact is that life is dangerous for larks. They are birds of wide open spaces; merlins and prairie falcons hunt them every day, and there is no avoiding them, no place to hide except in the anonymity of the flock. I suppose they must perceive cars as just another predator. The difference, of course, is that a falcon must expend a great deal of energy and effort to secure a lark, and once successful, bears away its prize to dine. Cars and trucks can kill larks wholesale, and to no good purpose.
Because of their tendency to flock and their preference for open country, horned larks are vulnerable not just to traffic, but also to collisions with wind turbines, cell phone towers (and their supporting guylines), and fences. It's a good job they're so plentiful, because death by misadventure—in bulk quantities—is a common fate.
With all this death at the hands of humanity, it's interesting that should my merlin happen to catch a lark—one—I could conceivably be charged with a felony. Happily, that is changing: the new federal falconry regulations recognize that trained hawks are birds, free agents with minds of their own, not remote-controlled airplanes under the direct influence of the falconer. Strict liability will give way to considerations of intent, which is as it should be: deliberate poachers can still be prosecuted, but falconers will no longer live in fear of an unintended but completely natural event being blown out of proportion.