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Eastern Meadowlark

Sturnella magna ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: ICTERIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The sweet, lazy whistles of Eastern Meadowlarks waft over summer grasslands and farms in eastern North America. The birds themselves sing from fenceposts and telephone lines or stalk through the grasses, probing the ground for insects with their long, sharp bills. On the ground, their brown-and-black dappled upperparts camouflage the birds among dirt clods and dry grasses. But up on perches, they reveal bright-yellow underparts and a striking black chevron across the chest.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.5–10.2 in
19–26 cm
Wingspan
13.8–15.7 in
35–40 cm
Weight
3.2–5.3 oz
90–150 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger but more compact than an American Robin; smaller than a Blue Jay.
Other Names
  • Sturnelle des prés (French)
  • Triguera común (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Eastern Meadowlark is not in the lark family (Alaudidae)—it’s a member of the blackbird family (Icteridae), which also includes cowbirds and orioles.
  • A male Eastern Meadowlark typically has two mates at a time, rarely three.
  • Taxonomists recognize up to 17 subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark, including one isolated population in the Southwest known as the Lillian’s Meadowlark, which lives well within the range of the Western Meadowlark.
  • Although Eastern and Western Meadowlarks are nearly identical, the two species hybridize only very rarely. Mixed pairs usually occur only at the edge of the range where few mates are available.
  • Where Eastern and Western meadowlark ranges overlap in the central U.S., the two species refuse to share territories. Their songs sound totally different to each other, like a foreign language, so singing doesn’t always do the job of communicating territorial boundaries. Instead, the two species are likely to fight for territorial supremacy.
  • An Eastern Meadowlark male can sing several different variations of its song. In New York, the songs from one male were analyzed using spectrograms; the bird sang more than 100 different patterns of song.
  • The oldest known wild Eastern Meadowlark was at least 8 years, 8 months old.

Habitat


Grassland

Eastern Meadowlarks are most common in native grasslands and prairies, but they also occur in pastures, hayfields, agricultural fields, airports, and other grassy areas. Because vast swaths of grasslands are hard to find in parts of eastern North America, Eastern Meadowlarks will breed in many kinds of grassy areas as long as they can find about 6 acres in which to establish a territory. Where their range overlaps with Western Meadowlarks, Eastern Meadowlarks tend to use wetter, lower-lying grasslands.

Food


Insects

Eastern Meadowlarks eat mostly insects, including crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and grubs. During winter they also eat weed seeds, spilled corn, and wild fruits, but don’t eat sprouting grain. They get their food by walking on the ground and probing with their bill. First they push their closed bill into the ground and then open their mandibles to disturb the dirt and expose grubs and worms—a common tactic for members of the blackbird family.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.9–1.2 in
2.2–3.1 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.9 in
1.8–2.3 cm
Incubation Period
13–16 days
Nestling Period
10–12 days
Egg Description
White, with variable speckles or spots.
Condition at Hatching
Mostly naked with pinkish-orange skin and sparse down along back and above eyes; eyes are closed at hatching.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest all by herself, taking 4–8 days. She constructs a cup nest woven with dead grasses, plant stems, and strips of bark that’s about 6–9 inches wide and 2–3 inches deep. Some nests are quite elaborate, with overhead roofs and tunnel entrances made of woven grasses.

Nest Placement

Ground

Eastern Meadowlarks nest on the ground in grasslands. The female finds a small depression or even hoof print, typically well concealed by dense vegetation.

Eastern Meadowlark Nest Image 1
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Behavior


Ground Forager

Eastern Meadowlarks walk and stalk on the ground of thickly vegetated grasslands searching for insects to eat. Males are very vocal during the breeding season, singing boldly from open areas or elevated perches. A musical meadowlark declaring “Spring is here!” from atop a farm fencepost is a welcome sign that winter is over in northern states. Singing is a primary means of territory establishment. Males also display to each other, and later to females, by tilting their bill upward and showing their bright yellow breast and black breast band. They will also engage in “jump flights”, where rival males leap into the air one after the other, fluttering their wings with tail cocked upward and feet dangling. Males accept 2–3 females into their territories; both males and females return to the same territory year after year, though females will find another territory if the male fails to show up. Outside of breeding season, Eastern Meadowlarks are very shy, remaining hidden among tall grasses and silently slinking away when people approach. When disturbed, they burst into their stuttering flight of shallow, whirring wingbeats and short glides. People should be very cautious approaching meadowlarks during nesting, as the female will abandon incubation of her eggs if she is forced off the nest.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Eastern Meadowlarks are a declining species. The North American Breeding Bird Survey shows a severe rangewide decline estimated at between 2.9 percent and 14.8 percent per year from 1966 to 2010. Cumulative loss to population numbers may be as high as 75 percent during that time. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 30 million with 63 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 14 percent in Mexico, and 2 percent breeding in Canada. The 2014 State of the Birds Report listed Eastern Meadowlark as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, and this species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Partners in Flight Continental Concern Score. Losses are due to their disappearing grassland habitat. Prairie is scarce in the eastern United States, and the kinds of farms that once hosted meadowlarks—small, family farms with pastureland and grassy fields—are being replaced by larger, row-cropping agricultural operations or by development. Early mowing, overgrazing by livestock, and the use of pesticides can also harm meadowlarks nesting on private lands. According to the State of the Birds 2011 report, more than 95 percent of the Eastern Meadowlark’s distribution is on private lands, meaning farmland conservation practices are vital to the survival of this species.

Credits

Range Map Help

Eastern Meadowlark Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to short-distance migrant, although some birds from northern populations migrate more than 600 miles to the southern U.S. These migrating meadowlarks typically depart by the end of November for wintering areas and return to the north after the snow melts in spring.

Find This Bird

During breeding season Eastern Meadowlarks sing often and fairly late in the day, so listen for their pretty, flutelike songs. Also look for bright yellow-breasted males with dashing black V’s across their chest as they show off from posts or poles. In winter, they may be gathered up in flocks of up to 200 meadowlarks foraging in fields for leftover seeds and grains.