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What Is Colorado’s State Bird? How Was It Decided?

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male lark bunting bird

Colorado has some of the most diverse landscapes in the United States. From the great Rocky Mountains to the western prairies, the Centennial State seems to have it all. So, it’s no surprise that Colorado would choose the Lark Bunting to represent the state. This songbird has a unique song and even a controversial past that fits Colorado’s uniqueness! 

Keep reading to learn more about this bird, what makes it interesting, and why Colorado chose it to represent the state.

What Does the Lark Bunting Look Like?

lark bunting bird
Image Credit: David Spates, Shutterstock
Length 5–7 inches 
Weight 1.3–1.5 ounces
Wingspan 11 inches
Colors Black and white

Interestingly enough, this bird is neither a lark nor a bunting. The Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys) is part of the sparrow family with velvety black feathers, a splash of white on the wings, and a smoky white beak. Females are sandy, with the same white coloring on the wing. 

This striking bird uses a mixture of fast and slow trills, depending on the time of year. Unlike most birds, male Lark Buntings have two songs in the spring and summer during the peak of mating season. 

When a male Lark Bunting is flying around his breeding territory, its song is more aggressive. You will only hear this song while the bird is in flight and descending toward Earth. But when he finds a mate, his song is sweeter, faster, and often heard from a perch.

The following video is a great example of a male Lark Bunting singing on top of a wooden perch. 

Just like many bird species, male Lark Buntings like to show up first to the breeding territory before the females. So, if you hear a Lark bunting during the spring and summer, odds are it’s a male!

Why Is Colorado’s State Bird the Lark Bunting?

Many states held a student ballot or allowed a group of people to select the state bird. But Colorado didn’t accept the decision when they had a student ballot. So, in 1931, they held a competition instead. 

The Lark Bunting went up against the Meadowlark and the Mountain Bluebird. Each bird was represented by a different individual. The Meadowlark was represented by the Superintendent of Education, and the Bluebird was represented by naturalist Charles Bowman Hutchins. 

However, we all know how the story ends. The Colorado Audubon Society president Roy Langdon (also a high school teacher) brought 121 of his high school students to help represent the Lark Bunting. Langdon gave a 15-minute speech about the bird, and sure enough, his presentation won over the legislative vote!

judge work in the office with judge gavel
Image Credit: PaeGAG, Shutterstock

The Lark Bunting’s Controversial Past

As we said before, the Lark Bunting is neither a lark nor a bunting, which has caused some controversy among bird experts. But how did this bird adopt the name in the first place? 

The story begins long ago, around 1714. English naturalist Mark Catesby visited the Bahamas and found a painting of a bird he quickly fell in love with. He published the image around 1731–1743 and named the bird “Passerculus bicolor.”

Around 1766, Catesby decided to change the name to “Fringilla bicolor.” This is where the controversy starts. 

In 1834, about 70 years later, two more naturalists named John Kirk Townsend and Thomas Nuttall crossed the country to document the wildlife and collect specimens. The Lark Bunting was discovered, and Townsend named it “Fringilla bicolor.”

When it comes to naming animals, there are rules scientists have followed for centuries. One of those rules is that no two species should have the same name. The other rule gives favor to the animal given the name first. 

The name “Fringilla bicolor” was already taken by Catesby in the mid-1700s, so scientists had to come up with a new name. The Lark Bunting was officially named in 1885 by Leonhard Stejneger and remained the official name.

lark bunting bird perching
Image Credit: vagabond54, Shutterstock

Where Do Lark Buntings Live?

Even though many people travel to Colorado for the western mountains, the Lark Bunting resides in the state’s eastern territory. Lark Buntings are ground feeders and nesters and won’t live anywhere that doesn’t have brush and prairie. 

Short grasslands, like freshly grazed fields or even large backyards, aren’t enough for the Lark Bunting. This bird needs tall native grasses, such as wheatgrass or big sagebrush, to hide its nests from predators. 

Lark Buntings also prefer grasslands with other vegetation since they hide their nests at the base of these plants for cover and shade. Plants like shrubs, cacti, and large patches of grass are most commonly used.

You may see a Lark Bunting near more civilized areas during the winter since food is more available. Cattle feedlots and weedy roadsides are common places for Lark Buntings to hide during winter.

Final Thoughts

Controversy or not, the Lark Bunting is a unique songbird with an interesting tune. Its striking features and glorious flute-like song are showstopping. Many eastern-residing Colorado residents love hearing this bird sing in the early hours of the morning. 

If you ever find yourself in the eastern part of the state, see if you can spot a Lark Bunting perched on a post or swooping toward the Earth.

Featured Image Credit: vagabond54, Shutterstock

About the Author Cassidy Sutton

Cassidy is a vet tech and pet sitter who has more recently become a animal writer. She loves cats and dogs and has had dozens of pets over the years. Her specialty is the human-animal bond. Cassidy and her husband currently live in Kansas with a German Shepherd named Raven, two cats named Lucy and Streudel, and several backyard chickens.