Yellowstone Natural History: Western Meadowlarks

The song “Home on the Range” might encompass most people’s conception of Western life, but among its omissions, it’s notably lacking in western meadowlarks.

A supremely beautiful bird, the western meadowlark is a staple of the prairie scene. It’s a quick and lively bird, fluttering through fields and darting through grasses in search of nourishment.

More than likely, you’ll hear a Western meadowlark before you see it, warbling a lovely little symphony. In a region commonly held to be semi-arid, this meadowlark’s call is surprisingly lush.

Basic Facts

  • Scientific name: Sturnella neglecta.
  • Sturnella translates (roughly) to “starling-like.”
  • Neglecta, meanwhile, means “neglected.”
  • John James Audubon attributed the scientific name to western meadowlarks, apparently as a dig against other westbound explorers and trappers who ignored this extremely common frontier bird.
  • In other words, the western meadowlark is a “neglected starling-like bird.”
  • These days, the western meadowlark is the state bird of six states: North Dakota, Oregon, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana.
  • In size, western meadowlarks are roughly the size of American robins.
  • Wingspan measures 16.1 inches in both males and females.
  • Adults weigh three to four ounces.


  • In terms of coloring, western meadowlarks have complicated plumage.
  • Distinguished by a bright yellow front extending from the head down the body and a V-shaped collar of black.
  • Wings appear mottled with buff-gray, black, and white feathers.
  • There is subtle variation in coloring between summer and winter, with fall/winter meadowlarks lighter than spring/summer ones.
  • Juveniles, for the most part, resemble adult meadowlarks in coloring but are overall duller.


  • Western meadowlarks are found throughout most of the Midwest, Western United States as well as Canada and Mexico.
  • Prefer prairies and grasslands, as well as pasture.
  • Western meadowlark range overlaps often with eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna).
  • For a long time, they were hardly distinguished as separate species, but (as we’ll see below) important differences manifest.


  • Feed on insects like beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, and ants.
  • Have been known to feed on snails and spiders as well.
  • Western meadowlarks also eat seeds and leftover harvest grain, especially in the fall and winter.
  • Feeds by foraging, running its bill along the ground, often in flocks during winter.



  • For the most part, western meadowlarks live year-round in California, the Pacific Northwest, Nebraska, Iowa, the American Southwest, western Texas and portions of Mexico.
  • Summer ranges include eastern Washington, most of Wyoming, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
  • Western meadowlarks winter in southern Missouri and Illinois, Arkansas, Louisiana, east Texas, Baja California, and portions of coastal Mexico.


  • Female western meadowlarks build nests in the ground, scooping up soil with their bills.
  • Nests are lined with dry grass and shrub stems.
  • Some nests are built to include waterproof dome, anchoring vegetation in the depression.
  • An average nest measures roughly seven to eight inches across and two to three inches deep.
  • The “cup” or cover measures four to five inches across.
  • Western meadowlarks love to build nests in dense vegetation, making them difficult to spot.
  • Nests can often be found by following “runways” i.e. paths created by the parents darting to and from the nest.


  • In spring, males establish territories and defend it by chasing intruders in what is known as “pursuit flights.”
  • Males also engage in “jump flights” (springing up and fluttering) while defending territories.
  • Males may do this up to a month before a female arrives.


  • Male western meadowlarks tend to mate with two females simultaneously.
  • Males bring food to the nest and defend against intruders.
  • Western meadowlarks have been known to abandon nests if humans discover them, even while incubating eggs.
  • Meadowlarks lay five to six eggs, which are white with rust-brown and lavender mottling.
  • Eggs incubate 13-16 days.
  • Typically meadowlarks have two broods a year.


  • Young western meadowlarks are born with closed eyes and pinkish skin.
  • Live in the nest for up to 12 days before they can fly.
  • Tend to leave the nest after a month.

East & West

  • As mentioned, for a long time, eastern and western meadowlarks were not readily distinguished as separate species.
  • This is evident in their scientific names, as the eastern meadowlark is known as Sturnella magna or “great starling-like bird” while (as mentioned) the western meadowlark is a “neglected starling-like bird.”
  • They are not remarkably separate, as both species have been known to produce hybrids.
  • This mix of eastern and western meadowlarks tends to be less fertile than either an eastern or western meadowlark, however.

Sing A (Not So) Simple Song

  • The easiest way to distinguish between eastern and western meadowlarks (especially where their ranges overlap) is through their song.
  • Eastern meadowlarks have a far simpler song that is more high-pitched.
  • Western meadowlarks, on the other hand, have a different tone and warble in more complex, sonorous sequences.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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