Category Archives: Western Working Lands Snapshot

Western Working Lands Snapshot | Western Meadowlarks

A meadowlark sings from a rock. Photo: Ken Miracle


This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” introduces us to meadowlarks. These melodious songbirds are abundant across western rangelands from the Mississippi to the Pacific and from Mexico to Canada.

Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.


Western meadowlarks are common, yellow-chested grassland birds whose flute-like songs trill brightly through meadows and fields across western North America.

Identification
This stout bird is best identified by a bright yellow underside and a distinctive black v-shaped bib on its chest. Western meadowlarks have a flat head, long legs, and pointed bill. Their short tail has easy-to-spot white outer feathers. Non-breeding adults have more brown and white streaks with pale yellow markings than their breeding counterparts.

Wesstern meadowlark by Kevin Cole, Wikimedia, CC. Click photo for link.

Song
Oftentimes western meadowlarks are easier to hear than to see. Their songs are lovely whistles that sound like an arpeggio of descending notes. Although it has a melodious call like members of the lark family, the meadowlark is actually in the blackbird family.

Habitat
Western meadowlarks live in open grasslands, prairies, meadows, agricultural fields and marsh edges ranging from sea level to 10,000 feet. During the spring and summer breeding season, males sing from atop fence posts, shrubs, or powerlines.

Male western meadowlarks often sing from fence posts as this shot shows. Photo: USFWS Mountain Prairie Region, George Ho, Jr. Via Flickr. Click photo for link.

Range
These birds are abundant and widespread across the West and Midwest, ranging from southern Canada to northern Mexico, and from the Mississippi to the Pacific. They are so abundant that the western meadowlark is the official bird of six states: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming.

Migration
Most of these birds remain in their home range year-round, but meadowlarks living in the cold northern part of the range or at high elevation will migrate to warmer areas during the winter.

Food
During the fall and winter, western meadowlarks eat grains and seeds by foraging on the ground. Their diet changes to insects in the late spring and summer when they probe the soil for beetles, ants, worms, grasshoppers and crickets.

Like other members of the blackbird family, meadowlarks use a technique called “gaping” to access hard-to-reach insects or seeds: they insert their long, strong bills into soil or bark then open wide to pry apart the substrate, probing for food that most birds can’t reach.

Nesting
Females build nests in a small dip or divot on the ground, often choosing a spot that’s well-hidden by vegetation. They use their bills to deepen the depression then line the nest with soft, dry grasses. After mating, females lay 4-6 eggs and incubate them for about two weeks.

Males typically mate with two females at a time, bringing food to the chicks once they’ve hatched and helping to defend the nest from predators. Western meadowlarks have one or two broods each season.

A western meadowlark nest in native prairie on Sand Lake Wetland Management District. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Tom Koerner via Flickr. Click photo for link.

Eastern vs Western
Explorer Meriwether Lewis was the first to note the differences between the eastern and western species of meadowlarks. Although they are nearly identical in appearance, their songs are completely different: the western species sings a gurgling, flute-like and variable song of 7-10 notes while the eastern species sings 3-5 pure, plaintive whistles that gradually drop in pitch.

The two species almost never hybridize even though their ranges overlap in the Midwest, perhaps partly because they don’t “speak” the same language.

Eastern meadowlark. Photo by John Sutton.

People
Western meadowlarks are very skittish around humans, particularly when nesting. If disturbed while incubating her eggs, the female will abandon the nest.

While some people get frustrated with meadowlarks for eating grain from farms or gardens, these birds actually provide a service to farmers by eating crop-damaging insects.

Breeding Decline
Although western meadowlarks are abundant, their breeding populations have declined by one percent per year over the past five decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This decline may be due to loss of their breeding habitat as native grassland is converted to houses, overtaken by invasive weeds or domesticated crops, mowed, over-grazed, or contaminated by pesticides.

Conservation
USDA-NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife funds voluntary conservation practices on agricultural lands that benefit at-risk grasslands across America’s western states. By restoring productive grazing lands, protecting wet meadows, and maintaining healthy native plant communities, thousands of ranchers and farmers are helping to support songbirds like the western meadowlark.

Map of Eastern and Western Meadowlark abundance from eBird data; Farm Bill conservation practices from USDA-NRCS data.

Recent research found that ranches enrolled in prescribed grazing through the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative showed the greatest variety and abundance of grassland-dependent birds. The conservation practices resulted in over 3 million more songbirds, including more meadowlarks.


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Western Working Lands Snapshot | Grasslands

Grasslands and blue skies in America’s Great Plains. Photo: Amy Erickson

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a new series of posts we’re calling “Western Working Lands Snapshots.” These posts will cover the natural history, wildlife, ecosystems, people, and more that make western working lands so special. For the first post, we’re featuring grasslands. We hope you enjoy this new series.


This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” introduces us to grasslands, which cover one-third of America and one-quarter of the world. These unique ecosystems provide vital grazing lands for livestock and rich wildlife habitat.

Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.

Definition

Grasslands are open, un-forested areas dominated by grasses. Shrubs, wildflowers, and other herbaceous plants are interspersed among the grass species. Trees are rare and are usually only found along streams or rivers.

NM Grasslands

Grasslands in New Mexico. Photo: Andy Lawrence

Range

Grasslands cover at least one-quarter of the world’s land area and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Here are a few of the names grasslands go by:

  • Savannas (Africa)
  • Pampas (South America)
  • Steppes (Eurasia)
  • Veldt (South Africa)
  • Prairies (North America)
Grassland Map

This map, from WikiCommons, shows the worlds grasslands in brown.

Great Plains

The Great Plains are the largest grasslands in the U.S., covering one-third of the country and portions of 10 states. Farming and ranching are the main economic drivers across these prairies, supporting hundreds of rural communities.

Ecosystem Role

Grasslands provide diverse and abundant vegetation that feed people, livestock, wildlife and insects. Many of the popular grains that people eat today—such as corn, wheat, oats and rice—were domesticated from wild grass species.

Pronghorn on grasslands

Grasslands support wildlife and agriculture. Photo: Andy Lawrence.

Climate

America’s Great Plains receive between 10-40 inches of rain annually, depending on the region. It’s drier in the west because of the rain shadow created by the Rocky Mountains, and wetter as you move east. Temperatures range from below freezing in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer.

Vegetation Types

Shortgrass prairies and bunchgrass steppes—where grasses only grow 8-10 inches high—are common in the drier landscapes in the western Great Plains. Tallgrass prairies are found in the wetter regions to the east, where grasses can grow up to seven feet high. The middle of the Great Plains is a transitional zone of mixed-grass prairie that includes both short- and tallgrass species.

Grasslands also include many species of broad-leafed plants (called forbs), like wildflowers and some woody species that are most commonly called shrubs. Most native grassland vegetation is perennial, meaning the plants come back each spring after going dormant during the winter.

Coneflower and butterfly

These purple coneflowers (echinacea) and the clouded sulfur butterfly are examples of forbs and insects found on grasslands. Photo: Ken Brunson.

Roots

Native grasses and forbs play a key role in creating rich, healthy soils. Sometimes called “upside-down forests”, their dense, fibrous root systems extend three to six feet below the surface, where they cycle nutrients and help hold water on the land. These roots also supply food and habitat to burrowing animals, insects, bacteria and fungi.

Western roots postcard

This postcard, available for download on SGI’s site (click photo for more about western roots), shows how deep native plant roots penetrate into the soil. Many of these plants grow in prairies in addition to sagebrush-steppe.

Resilience

Because most of their biomass grows below ground, grasslands have evolved to withstand drought, grazing, and fire. Grasses and forbs can easily grow back their above-ground stems after they have dried out or have been eaten or burned.

Historically, natural disturbances like fire or grazing helped maintain healthy, vigorous prairie habitat by encouraging plants to send up new shoots. Today, well-managed grazing and prescribed fire can help deter invasive annual grasses (like annual bromes and cheatgrass) or woody plants (like redcedar or mesquite) from taking over productive grasslands.

LPCI provides technical and financial assistance to landowners for voluntary conservation practices like prescribed grazing, woody plant removal, and prescribed fire. Photo: Stan Bradbury

Wildlife

Grasslands feed grazing animals like elk, pronghorn, deer, and bison, whose hooves help break up the soil and disperse native seeds to regenerate the prairie. Millions of birds rely on healthy grasslands, including sage grouse, eagles, prairie chickens, hawks, and a variety of songbird species. During the spring, pollinators like butterflies and bees feast on the wildflowers. Abundant grassland rodents such as prairie dogs and voles feed predators including badgers, coyotes, and swift foxes.

Bison in KS

Bison, like these in Kansaas, played a key role in grassland ecology historically. Today, cattle, pronghorn, and deer, help maintain grassland health. Photo: Ken Brunson.

Conservation

The Great Plains are one of the most at-risk landscapes in North America. The main threats are the conversion of native grassland to cultivated cropland, and the loss of native plants to invasive annual grasses or encroaching woody species.

Working together

Researchers, natural resources professionals, and landowners work together to restore and maintain productive grasslands. Photo: David Haukos.

Working Lands For Wildlife offers technical know-how and financial cost-share for landowners interested in creating resilient, productive grasslands. Strategic practices are developed on a case-by-case basis to benefit agricultural operations as well as wildlife, and include prescribed fire, sustainable grazing systems, woody plant removal, wet meadow restoration, and drought management plans.