Because deserts are characterized by low food availability, high ambient temperature extremes, and absence of drinking water, one might expect that birds that live in these conditions exhibit a lower basal metabolic rate (BMR), reduced total evaporative water loss (TEWL), and greater ability to cope with high air temperatures than their mesic counterparts. To minimize confounding effects of phylogeny, we compared the physiological performance of four species of larks at ambient temperatures (T(a)'s) ranging from 0 degrees to 50 degrees C: hoopoe larks (Alaemon alaudipes) and Dunn's larks (Eremalauda dunni) live in hot and dry deserts, whereas skylarks (Alauda arvensis) and woodlarks (Lullula arborea) occur in temperate mesic areas. Mass-adjusted BMR and TEWL were indistinguishable between hoopoe lark and Dunn's lark and between skylark and woodlark. When grouping the data of the two desert larks in one set and the data of the two mesic larks in another, desert larks are shown to have 43% lower BMR levels and 27% lower TEWL values than the mesic species. Their body temperatures (T(b)'s) were 1.1 degrees C lower, and the minimal dry heat transfer coefficients (h) were 26% below values for the mesic larks. When T(a) exceeded T(b), the h of hoopoe larks and Dunn's larks was high and indistinguishable from h at 40 degrees C, in contrast to the prediction that h should be decreased to minimize heat gain through conductance, convection, or radiation from the environment when T(a) exceeds T(b).