There is nothing which signifies or expresses summer more, I think, than the skylark singing as it soars high against the sun in a clear blue sky. Such an ecstatic song for such a nondescript bird. An exaltation of larks indeed!
The skylark was introduced to New Zealand from Europe along with so many other birds in the 1860s and had become established in open country from the coast to high up in the mountains. It avoids forests and other thick vegetation. The skylark’s most striking feature, and the one that gives the birds its name, is its song in flight. The territorial song of the male, heard mainly between August and January is an ecstatic torrent of variable trills and runs, sustained for up to five minutes while the bird soars high into the sky. It hovers 30–100 metres above the ground, facing into the breeze, and then drops slowly earthwards. The song ceases just before the final descent.
The skylark’s diet consists mainly of grass seeds, cereals, sedges, clover and various weeds, supplemented by quantities invertebrates such as beetles, flies, spiders and moths.
This from John Gould’s Birds of Great Britain: “It cannot be expected that anything I may attempt to say respecting the history of a bird so well known as the sky–lark will be imbued with novelty. From the days of Chaucer and Spenser nearly every poet of eminence has alluded to its charming song, and every writer, although unimbued with poetic feeling, has very correctly described its habits, disposition and economy. Some authors have dwelt upon its value as a bird for the cage and aviary, and its consequence importance as an article of commerce; while others have dilated upon its qualities as a viand for the table, and displayed their talents in detailing how a dozen larks may be made into one of the most recherche of dishes. For me to rhapsodize on the aerial song and other pleasing traits of the Sky–lark would be absurd, since poems and verses on this head are almost innumerable, many of them written with much feeling, and exquisite beauty of expression”.
In the 1890s, according to Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey's Birds Britannica, 20,000-40,000 skylarks were sold for food at Leadenhall Market in London every day. No amount of Shelley or Gerard Manley Hopkins or Vaughan Williams will ever bring them back. Two-thirds of the British population of skylarks has vanished in these past 25 years, which serves to remind that New Zealand's population is internationally significant.
— Greytown, Wairarapa, 2005
Other common names: —
18 cm., 38 g., streaky brown with a small crest, raised when the bird is excited or alarmed, white-sided tail, wings also have a white rear edge, visible in flight.
Where to find: —
Widespread and common, especially in the drier areas.
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven
— All’s right with the world.
— Robert Browning
The busy larke, messenger of daye,
Saluteth, in her song, the mornine gay;
And fyry Phoebus ryseth up so bright,
That all the orient laugheth of the light.
— Geoffry Chaucer — Knight’s Tale
The merry larke her matins sings aloft,
The thrush replyes, the mavis descant playes.
— Spenser’s Epithalamion
Lo, here the gentle lark, weary of rest,
From his moist cabinet mounts up on high,
And watches this morning, from whose silver breast
The sun ariseth in his majesty.
— William Shakespeare
Ode to a skylark
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,
Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see--we feel that it is there.
All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflow’d.
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
Like a high–born maiden
In a palace–tower,
Soothing her love–laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:
Like a glow–worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Its ae’real hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view!
Like a rose embowered
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflowered,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy–winge`d thieves:
Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass:
Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
Or triumphal chant,
Match’d with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.
Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then — as I am listening now.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley
Credit for the photograph: —
Illustration description: —
Albin, Eleazar, Natural History of Birds, 1731–38.
Gould, John, Birds of Great Britain, 1862–73.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Page date & version: —
Saturday, 30 October, 2010; ver2009v1