- 6.3–10.2 in
- 16.1 in
- 3.1–4.1 oz
- About the size of an American Robin, but with a shorter tail.
- Sturnelle de l'Ouest (French)
- Triguera de Occidente (Spanish)
- 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.
- The oldest recorded Western Meadowlark was at least 6 years, 6 months old when it was found in Colorado.
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.
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.
- Clutch Size
- 5–6 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1-2 broods
- Egg Length
- 1–1.3 in
- Egg Width
- 0.7–0.9 in
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
Although Western Meadowlarks are numerous, their breeding populations declined over 1% per year between 1966 and 2014, resulting in a cumulative decline of 50%, 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 2014 State of the 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.
- Lanyon, W. E. 1994. Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). In The Birds of North America, No. 104 (A. Poole, and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
- Discovering Lewis and Clark. Western Meadowlark: a western greeting. Accessed July 27, 2011.
- Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2014. State of the Birds 2014 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, DC.
Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- Peterson, R. T. 2008. Field Guide to Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
- Seattle Audubon Society. BirdWeb: Western Meadowlark. Accessed July 27, 2011.
- Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2015. Longevity records of North American Birds.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2014. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2014 Analysis.
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.
Although not seen regularly at backyard feeders, Western Meadowlarks 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.
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.