Eastern Meadowlark Life History

Habitat

Habitat GrasslandsEastern 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. Back to top

Food

Food InsectsEastern 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. Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

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

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.

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.
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Behavior

Behavior Ground ForagerEastern 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. Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Common Bird in Steep DeclineEastern Meadowlarks are a declining species. Populations fell over 3% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 89%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 30 million with 63% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 14% in Mexico, and 2% breeding in Canada. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The 2014 State of the Birds Report listed Eastern Meadowlark as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, but the species is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. 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.Back to top

Backyard Tips

This species often comes to backyards if food is offered. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

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Credits

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Jaster, Levi A., William E. Jensen and Wesley E. Lanyon. 2012. Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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