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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.