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.
- 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.