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Western Meadowlark

Sturnella neglecta ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: ICTERIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The buoyant, flutelike melody of the Western Meadowlark ringing out across a field can brighten anyone’s day. Meadowlarks are often more easily heard than seen, unless you spot a male singing from a fence post. This colorful member of the blackbird family flashes a vibrant yellow breast crossed by a distinctive, black, V-shaped band. Look and listen for these stout ground feeders in grasslands, meadows, pastures, and along marsh edges throughout the West and Midwest, where flocks strut and feed on seeds and insects.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.3–10.2 in
16–26 cm
Wingspan
16.1 in
41 cm
Weight
3.1–4.1 oz
89–115 g
Relative Size
About the size of an American Robin, but with a shorter tail.
Other Names
  • Sturnelle de l'Ouest (French)
  • Triguera de Occidente (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The nest of the Western Meadowlark usually is partially covered by a grass roof. It may be completely open, however, or it may have a complete roof and an entrance tunnel several feet long.
  • Although the Western Meadowlark looks nearly identical to the Eastern Meadowlark, the two species hybridize only very rarely. Mixed pairs usually occur only at the edge of the range where few mates are available. Captive breeding experiments found that hybrid meadowlarks were fertile, but produced few eggs that hatched.
  • A male Western Meadowlark usually has two mates at the same time. The females do all the incubation and brooding, and most of the feeding of the young.
  • The explorer Meriwether Lewis was the first to point out the subtle differences between the birds that would eventually be known as the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, noting in June 1805 that the tail and bill shapes as well as the song of the Western Meadowlark differed from what was then known as the “oldfield lark” in the Eastern United States.
  • John James Audubon gave the Western Meadowlark its scientific name, Sturnella (starling-like) neglecta, claiming that most explorers and settlers who ventured west of the Mississippi after Lewis and Clark had overlooked this common bird.
  • In 1914, California grain growers initiated one of the earliest studies of the Western Meadowlark’s diet to determine whether the bird could be designated a pest species. Although they do eat grain, Western Meadowlarks also help limit numbers of crop-damaging insects.
  • Like other members of the blackbird, or icterid, family, meadowlarks use a feeding behavior called “gaping,” which relies on the unusually strong muscles that open their bill. They insert their bill into the soil, bark or other substrate, then force it open to create a hole. This gives meadowlarks access to insects and other food items that most birds can’t reach.
  • The Western Meadowlark is the state bird of six states: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Only the Northern Cardinal is a more popular civic symbol, edging out the meadowlark by one state.

Habitat


Grassland

Western Meadowlarks live in open grasslands, prairies, meadows, and some agricultural fields ranging from sea level to 10,000 feet. They avoid wooded edges and areas with heavy shrubs. In winter they forage for seeds on nearly bare ground, in contrast to the Eastern Meadowlark, which tends to feed in more vegetated areas.

Food


Insects

Western Meadowlarks eat both grain and weed seeds along with insects. They show a distinctly seasonal dietary pattern, foraging for grain during winter and early spring, and for weed seeds in the fall. In late spring and summer they probe the soil and poke beneath dirt clods and manure piles seeking beetles, ants, cutworms, grasshoppers, and crickets. As they forage, meadowlarks use a feeding behavior called “gaping”—inserting their bill in the soil or other substrate, and prying it open to access seeds and insects that many bird species can’t reach. Western Meadowlarks occasionally eat the eggs of other grassland bird species. During hard winters, they may even feed at carcasses such as roadkill.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
5–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1–1.3 in
2.5–3.3 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.9 in
1.9–2.2 cm
Incubation Period
13–16 days
Nestling Period
10–12 days
Egg Description
White profusely spotted with brown, rust, and lavender.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes closed, naked with pinkish orange skin and sparse pearl gray down along the spine and above the eyes.
Nest Description

Working alone, the female Western Meadowlark uses her bill to shape a depression in the soil into a cup-like shape, then lines the nest with soft, dry grasses and the pliable stems of shrubs. Although some nests are simple grass-lined bowls, Western Meadowlarks often use the vegetation around the nest cup as an anchor to create a hoodlike, waterproof dome over the nest by weaving together grass and shrub stems. When finished the nest is 7–8 inches across, with a cup that is 4–5 inches across and 2–3 inches deep. It can take 6–8 days for the female to build the season’s first nest. As the parents move back and forth from the nest they create short “runways” into surrounding grasslands.

Nest Placement

Ground

The female Western Meadowlark chooses a nest spot on the ground in pasture, prairie or other grassland habitat. She seeks out a small dip or depression such as a cow footprint, often shielded by dense vegetation that can make the nest difficult to see.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Flocks of the stout-bodied Western Meadowlark forage along the ground in open fields, probing the soil for insects, grain and weed seeds. When taking to the air, they fly in brief, quail-like bursts, alternating rapid, stiff wingbeats with short glides. In spring, males establish territories and chase intruders away in “pursuit flights” that can last up to 3 minutes. You may see males competing over territorial boundaries perform a “jump flight,” springing straight up into the air several feet and fluttering their wings over their back with their legs hanging limp below. Male Western Meadowlarks can spend up to a month establishing and defending a breeding territory before females arrive. Successful males typically mate with two females during the breeding season, bringing food to the nest once the chicks are hatched and noisily chasing intruders away. Western Meadowlarks are extremely sensitive to humans when nesting and will abandon a nest if they are disturbed while incubating their eggs.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Although Western Meadowlarks are numerous, their breeding populations have been declining throughout the U.S. and Canada at about 1 percent per year since at least 1966, resulting in a cumulative decline of 36 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 85 million with 84 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S, 25 percent in Mexico, and 9 percent in Canada. They rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Declines may be due in part to conversion of grassland breeding and wintering habitat to housing and agricultural uses. Other factors affecting Western Meadowlark populations may include pesticide uses, habitat degradation due to invasive plant species, and fire suppression that alters native grasslands. Further research is needed to determine how different management practices in both native and planted grasslands affect both nesting success and adult survival of Western Meadowlarks.

Credits

Range Map Help

Western Meadowlark Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to medium-distant migrant, traveling mainly in small flocks. Western Meadowlarks leave breeding grounds in the northern part of their range (Canada and the northern U.S.) to winter farther south. Small numbers may overwinter in the north during mild years. Those living at high elevation move to lower elevations in winter.

Backyard Tips

Although not seen regularly at backyard feeders, Western Meadowlarks occasionally visit feeding stations in open habitats.

Find This Bird

Look for the abundant Western Meadowlark foraging in open grasslands, meadows and fields of low-growing vegetation, or along marshes and road edges with sparse cover. In winter you may see them in mixed flocks with other blackbirds and starlings. During the breeding season, males sing from the tops of fence posts and shrubs, or perch on fences and powerlines.

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