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Signs of spring: The lark and pasque flowers

The horned lark in a field of snow in Minnesota. Photo by Derek Bakken.

Although the author of the following poem, To A Snowdrop by William Wadsworth, 1819, wrote eloquently about the perennial spring bulb known as snowdrop of Ireland, Scotland, and Britain, he could have just as well been writing about a certain flower soon to be showing itself throughout North America's Great Plains, including across the prairie grasslands of Minnesota.

"Lone Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they

But hardier far, once more I see thee bend

Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,

Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,

Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay

The rising sun, and on the plains descend;

Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend

Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May

Shall soon behold this border thickly set

With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing

On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;

Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,

Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,

And pensive monitor of fleeting years!"

Our own harbinger of spring is the little ground-loving, two-inch lavender or white pasque flowers (Anemone patens) are sure to be found on dry prairies if you look hard enough.

The flowers of this diminutive perennial plant appear before the leaves appear. Often is the case that the pasque flower is poking through and beginning to bloom while snow is still on the ground or falling from the sky. Interestingly, pasque flowers do not have true petals, although their beautiful blooms certainly looks like petals. Actually, the "petals" are colored sepals, or petaloid sepals as botanists have coined.

Tiny hairs cover this member of the anemone family. Other common family members are the Canada and wood anemones found throughout Minnesota. It is thought that the tiny hairs may help protect the plant from frost. And as we all know and can attest to, Minnesota springs can be here one day and gone the next. Anything a plant and animal can do to protect it from temperature extremes is a definite plus to its survivability.

Anita Carpenter, from the April 1996 issue of the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, wrote about the unique name of the pasque flower. As Carpenter described, the pasque flower generally blooms around the time of two important religious ceremonies. "Pesach," originating from the Middle East, referred to both Passover and Passage. The French later altered the name to "passé fleur" as a reference to Easter. Today, the name pasque flower endures as its common name.

Another harbinger spring is of the avian variety, our resident horned larks, which are known to reside year around in southwestern Minnesota, are generally late winter migrants to the open country of northwestern Minnesota. The slender looking birds with long wings and sporting yellowish throats, dark facial masks, and dark breast-bands are our true harbinger of spring.

The breast bands are similar in appearance to the dark "V" found on the breast of western and eastern meadowlarks. Male horned larks also have, as their name indicates, small feathered "tufts" on their crowns, thus giving them their namesake "horned."

Horned larks do their foraging and feeding on the ground. Their diet includes a large variety of weed and grass seeds. Usually feeding together in large flocks, horned larks forage by running and walking as they search for seeds and insects.

Considered a songbird, horned larks do indeed have a musical song, though often described as "high pitched, but weak." Chirps are followed by a rapid series of crescendo-like tinkling warbles. In the open spaces where these birds breed and nest, male horned larks' songs carry well and can be heard from surprisingly long distances away. Males typically sing their songs from high above the ground during their courtship flight displays that includes hovering, circling, and diving back to the ground.

Choosing to build their nests on the ground, horned larks in Minnesota are noted for their propensity to sparse, short-grass cover (such as within overgrazed pastures and crop stubble fields) that few other birds would find suitable for nesting. You will sometimes find horned larks nesting in the short-grass fields adjacent to airport runways, too.

Often choosing nest sites alongside tufts of grass or other debris on the ground, the nest is a simple grass-lined nest built in a small depression. Nest building and incubating are all performed by the female.

After an incubation period of only 10 to 12 days, both parents feed and care for the young, usually anywhere from two to five nestlings. According to the literature, young horned larks can leave the nest in as little as nine days after hatching. Still, the offspring don't fledge until about three weeks of age.

Indeed, the harbingers of springtime here in Minnesota—the white pasque flower and horned lark — go hand in hand in the open land as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.