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  • Dr. Ron Bright

The Meadowlark "Springs" To Life

Updated: May 23

Dr. Ron Bright


“As February fades away, Spring is in the air and all thoughts turn to birding” (Clellie Lynch, the Berkshire Eagle, February 22, 2023). In the April, 2022 issue of Nature’s Almanac by Scott Severs, Ruth Carol Cushman, and Steve Jones, they described the meadowlark as a “Prairie Flutist and one of the best songsters of the world, labeling them the master singer of any worthy pasture, open-space parcel or grassland along the western slopes of Colorado.”

 

Here in the West, where my family lives, we are on a ranchette with prairie-like grass field topography surrounded by foothills and red rock formations. Woodland features are about ½ mile to the West of us.  I mention this because of a long-running friendly bet my wife and I have had with friends who live 3 miles south of us within a hilly wooded area. The winner of our bet is the first to spot the Western Meadowlark each year, usually in February.  After 2-3 years of winning the bet, we were asked to verify the migrating meadowlark’s arrival.  So, I secured the evidence I needed the following year using my telephoto camera.  But even that physical evidence was insufficient because we now have ‘wintering over’ meadowlarks, which would give us a “false positive” on identifying the returning population of migrating meadowlarks.  So, we were challenged to move from visual to auditory verification. We collectively led ourselves to believe that the first day we hear songs in February are not the local wintering birds but the happy returning ones.  This makes for a ‘sound’ rationale in our minds, and we are not inclined to allow ourselves to be corrected!  For the first few years after that, I sent our friends a recording of the first day of our meadowlark spotting.  Now, the auditory proof of the returning meadowlark is the gold standard! 

 

Our betting friends and I shared a bird-watching trip to Panama ten years ago.  This, coincidentally, happened to be in February, and when my friend screamed in delight that, alas, SHE was the first to spot the meadowlark that year (in Panama). I reminded her that Panama was east of the Mississippi. Our bet was still open because her identification was much more likely the Eastern Meadowlark and not the one native to our home habitat!  

 

To say the welcome sound of the first meadowlark of the year is nothing short of thrilling would be an understatement. It provides a glimmer of hope that Spring will arrive soon!  (Sorry Punxsutawney Phil). This blog will concentrate on the Western species, but most of my writing also applies to the Eastern version.

 

The meadowlark is not a handsome bird.  They morphometrically are, as Sibley states, “a stocky and somewhat awkward-looking bird with a short tail, long bill, and legs.”  The male’s outstanding physical features are the yellow chest and underside, with a plunging black “V” on their chest, contrasting beautifully with the bright yellow. They have a relatively slow flight speed and usually stay close to the ground.  Their flight pattern is easily recognized due to their rapid, stiff wing movements, progressing to a glide.

 

The Western Meadowlark's range extends from northern Mexico to central and western North America. They prefer to build their nests on the ground covered with grass, which camouflages and protects them well. Foraging for food is typically on the ground and includes insects, berries, grain, and grass seeds. Where I live in Colorado, most Western Meadowlarks migrate to the southernmost part of their range (primarily Mexico). At the same time, some will remain here all winter, and more are doing that than ten years ago.

 

While the meadowlark may not be the most handsome of the aviary species, its songs are amongst the most beautiful, making one forget their outward physical appearance.  “A Western Meadowlark’s joyous burble takes us to a sun-drenched prairie, with the wind whistling through the fence wire!”  (Julie Zickefoose in Nov/Dec 2022 Birdwatcher’s Digest (BWD) page 63). The songs have contributed to making meadowlarks the state bird in 6 states.   Besides their melodious multiple-note songs (a series of warbles and whistles with a soothing flute-like gurgle), they also have a single sharp note when other birds or humans intrude on their territory. They also have a series of calls they give while in flight.  One of my favorite sounds is a double note, which is often heard when they are perched on a fence post. (see figure 1)

 


Western Meadowlark on a post.
Fig. 1: Western Meadowlark

To see a video and hear their song, visit the All About Birds page on “WESTERN MEADOWLARKS” by Scott Severs.

 

Here is a photo (Fig. 2) of a meadowlark in full song mode belting out its flutelike sounds.


Western Meadowlark chirping
Fig. 2: Western Meadowlark singing

Building their nests is risky since they are on the ground and covered with grass woven over the eggs.  The nesting area of a female is approximately 5-10 acres.  The location of these nests makes them vulnerable to hikers, farmers and ranchers, and domestic and wild animals.  It takes about two weeks for the eggs to incubate and another ten days for the young to leave the nest. The males do none of the incubation and brooding, and the females feed most of the hatchlings.  A group of meadowlarks is known as a “pod.”

 

A sign of Spring, virtuoso singer, and striking appearance make the Western Meadowlark a remarkable bird. We are blessed that it shares with us our little piece of the world here in Colorado, and each year we eagerly anticipate its return from winter travels.

 

Please comment below if you have experiences or thoughts about this beautiful bird, the Western Meadowlark, or its cousin the Eastern Meadowlark.

 

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