The larks are robust, sparrow-sized, brown birds characteristic of open country, from semi-arid areas and deserts to Arctic tundra. Most species are basically streaked brown, though some have dark markings or white patches - cryptic colouration to hide in open habitats. All have relatively long legs and many prefer to run, or freeze crouching, from danger rather than fly. A long hind claw in many species gives extra stability when walking over uneven ground. Most species feed predominantly on seeds, but all will take some insects, particularly to feed nestlings, which have high protein demands. Their stout beaks enable them to crush most seeds they handle.
Most larks have a well-developed song which they often deliver as part of a song flight; the song of the European Skylark has been the subject of numerous poems; probably the most well-known is Shelley's 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.
The song-flight behaviour Shelley describes is used by the males to advertise territory possession. Although larks are territorial in the breeding season in desert areas they are dependent on the rains and will shift the timing and location of breeding in response to them (for rains stimulate the plants which provide the seeds on which they feed). In the non-breeding season, larks will gather in large flocks at particularly rich food sources.
In Britain, the Skylark was the most widely distributed bird species (at the time of the last Breeding Atlas, but has since declined rapidly), while the Woodlark is restricted to heathland in southern Britain.