Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis)

Cover image: Grey-backed Sparrow-lark by Jorrie Jordaan – Aberdeen district, Eastern Cape – BirdPix No. 252498

Identification

The Grey-backed Sparrow-lark is a small, compact lark with marked sexual dimorphism.

Adult males are unmistakable and the only sparrow-larks in southern Africa with a grey back and strongly patterned black and white head.

Grey-backed Sparrow-lark identification
Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis) 
Carnarvon District, Northern Cape
Photo by Sybrand Venter

Females are less distinctive than the males but still readily identifiable based on their overall pale grey-brown appearance, un-streaked flanks and black lower belly patch.

Immature birds resemble the females but are variably buff and white spotted above.

Grey-backed Sparrow-lark males are unlikely to be mistaken for another species. Females are similar to those of the Black-eared Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix australis) and the Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis). Females of both the Black-eared and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks are darker, particularly on the upperparts, and have reddish brown (not sandy grey) upper wing coverts. They are also more boldly streaked on the breast as opposed to the light streaking on the breast of the female Grey-backed Sparrow-lark.

Grey-backed Sparrow-lark identification of female
Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis)
Near Niewoudtville, Northern Cape
Photo by Andrew Hodgson

Status and Distribution

The Grey-backed Sparrow-lark is near-endemic to Southern Africa. It also occurs in south-western Zambia and neighbouring south-eastern Angola and also occurs along the coastal plain of Angola as far north as Luanda. It is distributed across central and western South Africa, and virtually throughout Namibia and Botswana. There are few records from Zimbabwe where the Grey-backed Sparrow-lark is mainly irruptive after good rains.

There is no evidence of changes in the recent past to the distribution of the Grey-backed Sparrow-lark. It remains a common and widespread species and is not threatened.

SABAP2 distribution map for Grey-backed Sparrow-lark
SABAP2 distribution map for Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis) – September 2023.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

Habitat

A bird of semi-arid to arid habitats, the Grey-backed Sparrow-lark is present in a range of vegetation types, including Karoo scrub, arid grasslands with scattered shrubs and trees, and sparse Kalahari woodlands. It is frequently attracted to dry pans, burnt grassland, and fallow fields. Prefers flat, sandy or firm gravelly areas and generally avoids rocky and mountainous terrain.

The Grey-backed Sparrow-lark is most numerous in the Karoo and Kalahari vegetation types in the Northern Cape, Botswana and Namibia.

Habitat for Grey-backed Sparrow-lark
Typical habitat near Vanwyksvlei, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Behaviour

This species is gregarious, even when breeding. It is most often found in small groups but may also occur in flocks numbering in the thousands following good rainfall and grass growth.

The seasonal movements of this species are not well understood, but they appear to be nomadic, moving erratically in response to rainfall and food availability.

Forages in open places among shrubs and stones. Flushes readily in typically erratic flight while uttering a chirping flight call. Spends most of its time on the ground and seldom perches on bushes or fences.

Eremopterix verticalis
Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis) 
Carnarvon District, Northern Cape
Photo by Sybrand Venter

Forages on the ground and feeds mostly on grass seeds, but also eats seeds from certain forbs and shrubs. Insects make up a smaller part of their diet, especially young locust hoppers and the workers and alates of Northern Harvester Termites (Hodotermes mossambicus). Drinks water regularly when available, but some flocks apparently survive without access to water.

Eremopterix verticalis
Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis) 
Carnarvon District, Northern Cape
Photo by Sybrand Venter

The Grey-backed Sparrow-lark breeds opportunistically after rain. It is a monogamous, solitary nester, even though nests may only be a few meters apart.

In display flight, the singing male circles 15-30 m above ground in a series of undulations, often with the legs dangling.

Nest construction is mostly by the female, although the male may help. The nest is a cup composed of fine grass leaves, panicles, feathery awns and rootlets. The nest is placed into an excavated hollow, on a foundation of small stones. The nest rim is normally slightly raised and fringed with more small stones. or soil clods. The nest is usually situated at the base of a shrub or grass tuft and facing south or east for shade.

Eremopterix verticalis
Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis) 
Carnarvon District, Northern Cape
Photo by Sybrand Venter

One to five (normally two or three) eggs are laid per clutch. Clutch size is linked to the amount of rainfall the breeding area has received. The eggs are white and finely speckled with yellowish-brown markings. Incubation begins after all the eggs have been laid or sometimes after the first egg has been laid. Incubation duties are shared with males doing most of the incubation during the day and females at night.

All eggs normally hatch within 24 hours and the nestling period lasts just 7 to 10 days. Parental duties are shared by both sexes. The young are fed exclusively on arthropods, particularly Harvester Termites, caterpillars and grasshoppers. The parents perform broken wing distraction displays when the eggs or young are threatened. When alarmed the male often flies around the nest site in bouncing flight while alarm calling.

Grey-backed Sparrow-lark
Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis) 
Carnarvon District, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Further Resources

Species text adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Alan Collett, Gerald Wingate, Tino Herselman and Vaughan Jessnitz is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Grey-backed Finchlark (Alternative English name); Grysruglewerik (Afrikaans); Moinelette à dos gris (French); Nonnenlerche (German); Cotovia-pardal-de-dorso-cinzento (Portuguese); Grijsrug-vinkleeuwerik (Dutch).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Grey-backed Sparrow-lark Eremopterix verticalis. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available Online at http://thebdi.org/2023/09/11/grey-backed-sparrow-lark-eremopterix-verticalis/

Bird identificationbirding

Grey-backed Sparrow-lark
Grey-backed Sparrow-lark (Eremopterix verticalis) 
Tulbagh district, Western Cape
Photo by John Fincham
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!