Western Meadowlark Life History

Habitat

Habitat GrasslandsWestern 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.Back to top

Food

Food InsectsWestern 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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest GroundThe 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.

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:5-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:1.0-1.3 in (2.5-3.3 cm)
Egg Width:0.8-0.9 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.
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Behavior

Behavior Ground ForagerFlocks 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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernAlthough Western Meadowlarks are numerous, their breeding populations declined over 1% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 48%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 85 million with 84% spending part of the year in the U.S., 25% in Mexico, and 9% in Canada. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' 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.Back to top

Backyard Tips

Western Meadowlarks may come to backyards if food is offered. Although not seen regularly at feeders, they occasionally visit feeding stations in open habitats. 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

Davis, Stephen K. and Wesley E. Lanyon. 2008. Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin and D. Wheye (1988). The birder's handbook. A Field Guide to the natural history of North American birds, including all species that regularly breed north of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., 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.

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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