On the wild side—May, 2011
by Tina Mitchell
A chunky bird with a brown-streaked back, the adult Western Meadowlark flashes its white tail edgings as it flies away from you. A bright yellow throat, breast, and belly as well as a V-shaped black “necklace” make identifying s a meadowlark relatively easy. What is difficult is distinguishing a Western Meadowlark from an Eastern Meadowlark. They look pretty much the same, but their songs are definitely distinct. The Eastern Meadowlark has a clear whistled “spring of THE year;” a Western Meadowlark, a jumble of loud, sweet whistles that is both indescribable and unmistakable. This confusion between the two species shows up in the scientific name of the Western Meadowlark also: Sturnella neglecta. Sturnella—“little starling”—comes from the Latin word for “starling” (“sturnus”) plus the diminutive “ella” (even though a meadowlark is considerably larger than a starling and, generally speaking, a lot less annoying). Neglecta was chosen because the Western Meadowlark was not separated from the Eastern Meadowlark until about 100 years after its first description. John James Audubon was scolding ornithologists who he felt had neglected this species. (Photograph by Alan Vernon, available from Wikimedia Commons.)
A meadowlark feeds almost entirely on the ground—either at the surface or by probing beneath the soil by jabbing its closed bill into the ground or beneath an object and then spreading its beak apart to find insects lurking under there. Its diet consists mostly of grains, weed seeds, and insects (favorites include beetles, weevils, grasshoppers, and crickets). Meadowlarks nest on the ground as well—often crafting a structure with a grass “roof” of sorts, making the nests especially hard to find.
Baby meadowlarks grow up quickly, although they don’t achieve their classic plumage of the black necklace and the beginnings of a yellow throat, chest, and belly until September of their 1st year. Nestlings leave the nest quite young, as soon as 10–12 days after hatching and typically before they can fly. Their legs are strong but their flight feathers are not yet fully developed. As a result, they can run quickly for short distances, but they have to protect themselves from predators and other dangers primarily by hiding in dense vegetation, well camouflaged by their cryptic brown, streaky coloration. The photo on the right gives you a sense of the coloration of a fledgling in the fall of its first year. (It could also be a non-breeding-plumaged adult, say from August through March. They look similar.) You can see hints of the yellow belly and throat, if you click on the photo to see a larger version. (Photo from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, again via Wikimedia Commons.) You can imagine how effective the camouflage of the streaking on the back would be, especially among dried grasses.
Meadowlarks begin to arrive in our area from their wintering grounds in late March and early April. Since they often raise 2 broods, you can spot and hear the males singing from fence posts and tall stalks of vegetation much of the spring and summer, protecting their territories. An errant Eastern Meadowlark wanders into Colorado from the east on occasion. (One made an appearance as far west as Salida several summers ago.) But by far, our most common meadowlark here is the Western Meadowlark. And while it is indeed a gifted songster, the Western Meadowlark is not really a lark at all. Instead, it is closely related to blackbirds and grackles (the Icterid family). But when you hear that loud, lovely, liquid song wafting across a grassy field, you can understand why early settlers considered it the “lark of the meadow.”
Click here for more information and to hear clips of the Western Meadowlark’s gorgeous song. You can also learn more about the differences, subtle though they may be, between Western and Eastern Meadowlarks there.