BIRD OF THE WEEK: December 7, 2018
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sturnella magna
POPULATION: 37 million
IUCN STATUS: Near Threatened
TREND: Decreasing (in United States and Canada)
HABITAT: Meadows, fields, pastures, prairies, desert grasslands
Often hunkered down in the grasses, the Eastern Meadowlark may surprise a casual observer: This stout-bodied bird sports a cryptic, streaky brown back, but when facing you, you see its shocking yellow breast, emblazoned with a bold, black “V.” Spring and early summer are best for spotting these birds, when males perch in isolated field trees and shrubs or on fence posts, incessantly belting out their distinctive “Spring-of-the YEEAAR” song, which in Mexico is interpreted as “Tortilla Con Chile.”
Meadowlarks belong to the family Icteridae, which includes blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, and orioles, including Baltimore and Audubon's Orioles. The Eastern Meadowlark is one of two meadowlark species found in the United States and Canada. Or are there three?
There are at least 16 Eastern Meadowlark subspecies, four of which are found in the United States. One of these extends into Canada. Some experts believe that the pale southwestern subspecies – called Lilian's Meadowlark, or Sturnella magna lilianae – is a separate species. Its song, isolated breeding range, and habitat (desert grasslands) differ from other northern subspecies, and recent genetic analysis seems to reveal a marked divergence from these populations.
While the jury's still out on Lilian's Meadowlark, the other sure-fire species – the Western Meadowlark – is very similar to the Eastern, but has a different song and call. The two species' ranges broadly overlap in the central and southwestern United States, where visual identification takes some care. In breeding plumage, the Eastern Meadowlark has a whitish moustache, while the Western's is yellow. In the drab nonbreeding plumage, Eastern Meadowlarks (including Lilian's) have striking blackish head stripes, unlike the Western's subtler brown ones. In flight, the Eastern Meadowlark usually flashes more white in the outer tail feathers than its western cousin, though this field mark takes practice to learn. Despite the range overlap, the two species rarely interbreed.
In breeding season, the female Eastern Meadowlark crafts a domed nest of grasses, placed on the ground under thick cover. She weaves the grass stems in and out of surrounding vegetation so that there is a secure overhang, while one side remains open as an entrance. In this domed refuge, she incubates three to five spotted eggs, which hatch in approximately two weeks. Both parents feed their nestlings. Although the young leave the nest after about 12 days, the parents tend them for at least two more weeks. If all goes well, a meadowlark pair raises two broods each year.
In warm weather, Eastern Meadowlarks eat invertebrates they find lurking in the grasses, including grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, beetles and grubs, caterpillars, ants, and spiders. The diet shifts to plant matter fall through early spring, when the birds dine on a wide variety of seeds and left-over grain found in harvested farm fields.
The Eastern Meadowlark's song was once one of the most familiar sounds in the countryside of the East and Midwest. But many large-scale farming enterprises no longer support the type of varied grassy habitats these birds need, while many northeastern meadow habitats have reforested.
Even farms where meadowlarks find suitable cover and food often prove inhospitable: For example, many hay fields are harvested during nesting season, killing young birds or destroying eggs. Overgrazing of pastures and pesticides also threaten meadowlarks.
An estimated 65 percent of the Eastern Meadowlark population occurs in the United States and Canada, where populations are believed to have declined by 77 percent between 1970 and 2014.
Despite many regional declines, the Eastern Meadowlark has a wide distribution, both in the United States and southward. The Western Meadowlark ranges no farther than central Mexico, but the Eastern Meadowlark inhabits much of that country, as well as Central America, and northern South America, from Colombia east to far-northern Brazil.
Most meadowlark habitat falls under private ownership. Farmers and ranchers who practice conservation methods along with their daily business can have a huge impact on this bird's future. Fallow fields, for example, not only rest the soil – they provide ideal habitat for the Eastern Meadowlark as well as the Vesper Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, Dickcissel, and many other grassland birds.
The Eastern Meadowlark is also found in ABC BirdScapes in the central and eastern United States and, in the case of Lilian's Meadowlark, in northern Mexico, in the Valles Centrales BirdScape. BirdScapes are landscape-scale areas where ABC and its partners work to combine smart land use with effective bird conservation that provides habitat to help sustain or recover targeted migratory bird species or populations.
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In 2014, Partners in Flight placed the Eastern Meadowlark on its list of 33 Common Species in Steep Decline, a category that includes such disappearing species as the Grasshopper Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, and Common Nighthawk.
ABC is working to turn this distressing trend around – and with your help, we can bring birds back, protect their habitats, and tackle the toughest threats.
Please help us raise $1 million for birds by December 31, 2018 so we can write a better story for the Eastern Meadowlark and other declining birds!
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