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What is the State Bird of Colorado? (And Why?)

Colorado is the 8th largest state by area and the 21st most populous state in the US. It is well known for its beautiful landscapes, and with that comes an abundance of wildlife. The state animal for Colorado is the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, but what is the state bird?

The state of Colorado chose the lark bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys) as the state bird in 1931. This member of the sparrow family, a medium-sized songbird, typically features a mostly black coat of feathers with a white patch on their wings and resides in the brush and prairie lands of the state. This omnivore mostly eats bugs but in winter eats seeds of weeds and grasses.

The state bird of Colorado, the Lark Bunting

The state bird of Colorado, the Lark Bunting

Why is the lark bunting the state bird for Colorado?

The Centennial State, Colorado, chose the wild lark bunting for its state bird, although the bird neither falls into the category of a lark or a bunting. Instead, it is a sparrow. The native bird ingratiated itself to the state’s residents due to its melodic song and acrobatic courtship dance. Residents become mesmerized by the bedazzling dance performed by the male bird trying to win the heart of a lovely female sparrow. The male launches himself 50 feet into the air, spins downward in a spiral while singing a love song to his potential mate.

When did the lark bunting become the state bird for Colorado?

In 1931, the state of Colorado had a legislative debate over what to choose for its state bird. Most states simply hold a student ballot, which Colorado did. It just didn’t accept the decision and instead held a competition for the top three contenders – the meadowlark, mountain bluebird, and lark bunting. Colorado knew many states share their state bird with other states, and it wanted uniqueness. Although you can only see the birds on the state’s Eastern Plains, and the state wanted a bird that permeated the state, this little sparrow still had a fighting chance.

The Colorado legislature hosted presentations from each group that supported a different bird. The bluebird representative naturalist Charles Bowman Hutchins made only a brief speech and whistled a few bars of birdsong before leaving the capital. The state superintendent of education, Katherine L. Craig, represented the meadowlark. Students shared her favorite bird, and she hadn’t even provided the lark bunting a ballot listing. Colorado Audubon Society president, also a Fort Collins high school teacher, Roy Langdon, brought 121 of his high school’s seniors with him as pep club for the now state bird. Describing the lark bunting as “troubadour of the Plains,” he delivered a 15-minute oratory regaling the bird as “gentle of manner” and “pleasingly sociable among his fellows.” When the legislature voted, the longshot sparrow won the day.

Female Lark Bunting perched on barbed wire

Female Lark Bunting perched on barbed wire

What does the state bird of Colorado look like?

This member of the sparrow family dresses smartly in black feathers with a white accent on their wings. The distinguished male lark bunting ready for breeding appears to wear a tuxedo for courting. Its females and nonbreeding males wear gray-brown feathers with stripes. These birds’ short bills provide a light-colored contrast to their dark bodies. Both genders grow to about five to seven inches in length with a wingspan of 11 inches. Despite their wide wingspan, they have short tails with feathers tipped in white. This tiny bird grows to a typical weight of 1.3 to 1.5 ounces.

Lark Bunting in flight

Lark Bunting in flight

How do these birds behave?

As Langdon described, these sociable avians exhibit a gentle manner. They enjoy living in grasslands and prairies, preferring sagebrush. Building nests on the ground, they hide them under shrubs. The lark bunting will also hide its home in grassy areas. Their home’s shape differs from most bird nests in that it takes the shape of a deep-sided cup.

The lark bunting migrates during winter. Colorado is its home, but like many human snowbirds, the state gets a bit cold for the feathered fowls. It winters in Arizona, Texas, and northern Mexico.

Lark buntings sing two distinctive songs and many communication sounds. The males use the two songs in spring and summer in the process of mate attraction. They sing a slow, distinct melody as well as a trill. These short songs last about eight seconds. Their bird calls include an in-flight sound, a call to alert their spouse and baby birds as they return to the nest, and a hungry bird sound.

Female Lark Bunting perched on a rock

Female Lark Bunting perched on a rock

Do lark buntings form communities?

Lark buntings travel in flocks. They migrate together from Colorado to Texas or Arizona. In their wintering habitat, they also choose grasslands first as a nesting area but will also use a dry lake bed if needed.

The preference of the lark bunting is to live and dine in the grassland. Sometimes, the winter causes them to take a nomadic existence. They will forage in a human-populated and modified area when needed, and you can spot them in cattle feedlots or along the TX roadside munching on weed seed.

What do lark buntings eat?

Officially, lark buntings qualify as omnivores, but they would rather eat bugs than weed seeds. During summer, when insects abound, the bird chooses to make two-thirds of its diet meat. Lark buntings feed their babies an all-meat diet.

Lark Bunting with a beak full of grasshoppers

Lark Bunting with a beak full of grasshoppers

When they forage, they strip grasses of their seed or tap the ground to discover seeds. When hunting insects, they stalk and chase prey. Females and males will pursuit them in flight, although females do this more often. Females also move quicker than the males on the ground when foraging.

Their preferred meat dishes include ants, bees, beetles, caterpillars, flies, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, moths, and wasps. Their favorite vegetable dishes include cactus fruit, grains, forbs, grass, and leaves.

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