Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark © TGrey

The Western Meadowlark is one of North America’s most abundant and widely distributed birds. Its frequent roadside occurrence, colorful plumage, and melodious song make it one of our most popular birds; no fewer than six states have it as their state bird. Although the Western Meadowlark was known to explorers Lewis and Clark, it was John James Audubon, who in his 1844 report on Meadowlarks west of the Mississippi, gave the bird its Latin name, Sturnella neglecta. Although a gifted songster, the Western Meadowlark is not a lark, but related instead to New World blackbirds. Meadowlarks can be found in their preferred open grassland habitat on the west side of the Park, where they are year-round residents.

This is a medium-sized songbird with a long slender bill, short tail, and long legs and toes. The sexes are similar in coloration and pattern, but the female is smaller and less strongly marked. The adult birds have a dark crown with a light median stripe. A light line over the eyes becomes bright yellow from eye to bill. Their upper parts are a pattern of buffs, browns, and black streaks and bars. Under parts are bright yellow, and the sides, flanks, and under-tail feathers are a dull white. The most striking feature of their plumage is the black shield-shaped patch on the chest, which strongly contrasts with the bright yellow chest.

The breeding cycle occurs from mid-February to mid-July. The Meadowlark is a ground nester that requires large grassy areas, like those we have in the western reaches of the Park. The bird is well adapted to wide open spaces. Its long legs carry it quickly through the grass and the mottled color of its upper parts blend in with the open drab grass surroundings. They nest in natural and scraped grassland depressions. The nest is made of course grass, and lined with finer grass and animal hair. The nest is often covered by a roof or arch, and some have an entrance tunnel and runway. Females alone gather materials and build nests, requiring about 6-8 days to complete.

Eggs are laid after the nest is lined; 1 egg in early morning on consecutive days. The female seldom visits the nest during this period other than to lay. She is quick to abandon the nest if disturbed. The average clutch size is 5 eggs. The male shows no interest in the nest with eggs, leaving incubation duties to the female. Incubation begins with the laying of the last egg and normally lasts 13 to 14 days.

The young hatch nearly naked with no direct parental assistance, normally on the same day. Their eyes remain closed for 4 days, and feathers start emerging by the 6th day. The young are brooded by the female, who also has the feeding duties. Food items, mostly insects, are fed directly from bill to throat, without regurgitation. The male’s attentiveness to the young seems to vary with degree of attention to his other females. After 10 to 12 days in the nest the young are ready to fledge. Their bodies are fully covered by feathers, but their flight feathers are not completely developed, making them incapable of sustained flight. However, their legs are strong, enabling them to run quickly when threatened. At 15 to 16 days they are capable of short flights, and sustained flights at 20 to 21 days. The young remain dependent on the parents for up to 2 weeks after fledging.

Meadowlarks feed almost entirely on the ground, obtaining food from the top of the ground or by probing beneath the soil. Their diet consists largely of vegetable (grain and weed seeds) and animal matter (insects). Favorite insect foods include beetles, cutworms, grasshoppers and crickets. They feed on grains in winter and early spring, insects in late spring and summer, and weed seeds in the fall. Foraging birds walk or run on the ground, but when they approach their nests they walk more stealthily with their body closer to the ground.

Meadowlarks have a large repertoire of calls and songs which they use to proclaim territorial ownership, attract mates, broadcast personal characteristics (age, sex, competence), warn of potential dangers, and maintain social contact. While both sexes vocalize, it is the loud, complex territorial song of the male that is the most conspicuous and familiar sound we hear when walking along the grassland areas on the west side of the Park. The song serves as a signal to potential rivals that the territory is occupied by a resident male, prepared to protect his exclusive use of that space and any associated females. The song generally lasts for 1.5 to 2.0 seconds, and may be delivered from the ground, but more typically from high perches (fence posts, shrubs, rocks) located throughout their territories, or more frequently, along the perimeter, adjacent to neighboring territories. Each male has a repertoire of 6 to 9 territorial song types. They usually produce a round of repetitions of one type before switching to another. Song switching is often in response to an intruder’s song, advertising its readiness to interact. Listen to some songs here.

The females usually arrive on the breeding grounds 2 to 4 weeks after the males. Pairing occurs immediately upon arrival, and they remain close together, foraging and prospecting for nest sites. The female does not pair with another male while the 1st male continues to maintain his territory successfully, but the male usually has 2 mates concurrently. The pair bond is maintained until the female has completed parental care or aborted a final nesting attempt. Thereafter the female will forage in and out of the former breeding area without male escort, often in association with other meadowlarks.

The most aggressive social behavior, is characterized by acts of display intended to discourage the presence of rivals, and by the exclusive continued use of a defined area for an individual and its mate. Meadowlarks seem to require a territory of about 5 to 7 acres, and males who are unsuccessful in acquiring mates fail to maintain territories. When territories are being established, resident males constantly engage in evicting trespassers. Intruders are aerially pursued until beyond territorial boundaries. When territorial boundaries are disputed, competitive renditions of song by neighboring males from adjacent song perches occur. In addition to singing, posturing displays are used, the most common being tail and wing flashing, whereby the tail feathers are nervously snapped out and in, while the wings are flashed open and shut with great speed. Body contact and fighting between males, though uncommon, can be quite severe with much thrashing of wings, jabbing of bills, and clawing.

Lanyon, W.E. 1994. The Birds of North America. No 104.
Gill, F.B. 2006. Ornithology.

Learn More…
Western Meadowlark at All About Birds. This guide includes a number of sounds.
Western Meadowlark in the Audubon Field Guide.

By Lee Franks. This article was originally published in the Edgewood Explorer, March 2002.