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A Closer Look: The Western Meadowlark


Ann Bailey Dunn

GIF -- Western Meadowlark Picture

Originally published in:
North Dakota Outdoors
(March, 1998)

Official Publication of the
State Game and Fish Department
100 North Bismarck Expressway
Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-5095

This resource is based on the following source:
Dunn, Ann Bailey.  1998.  A closer look: The Western Meadowlark.  North Dakota 
     Outdoors 60(8):9.
This resource should be cited as:
Dunn, Ann Bailey .  1998.  A closer look: The Western Meadowlark.  North Dakota 
     Outdoors 60(8):9.  Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center 
     (Version 15MAY98).

Return to A Closer Look Series
When spring arrives in North Dakota, meadowlarks are not far behind. Male meadowlarks are frequently seen perched on faded fence posts along pastures, their bright yellow breast accented by a black "V" glistening in the sun.

Breeding season begins early. A male meadowlark announces his presence by bursting into a distinctive, flute-like double-noted call. It rings out through the morning air, proclaiming to the bird world that he has chosen this spot, five to 10 acres, as his territory and will fiercely defend it from other meadowlarks.

His joyful song and colorful plumage is designed to attract a female. After a modest courtship display of singing, nest building begins.

The female builds a nest on the ground, hidden in a clump of grass and domed with grass and weed fibers. A small hole on the side, and a hidden runway up to four feet long, allows the meadowlark an entrance to the nest.

Preferring to nest on the ground and live in open areas, meadowlarks must carefully conceal their home. They are constantly on the lookout for predators such as cats, dogs, hawks, owls, foxes and skunks. While meadowlarks will defend their home and young against animals much larger than themselves, they have little chance against predators.

The female lays one whitish pink egg, speckled with lavender and brown, each day for five days. The female incubates for 14 days and only leaves the nest for brief periods. The male, when not searching for food, spends his time working on his already-perfect song, serenading his mate throughout the day.

When the young hatch they are fed regurgitated food by their parents. The fledglings leave the nest before they are ready to fly. With encouragement from both parents they flutter weakly on the ground - where they eagerly await feeding.

Colored a yellowish light brown and streaked with black, the young are camouflaged to perfection and are safe from enemies as long as they are still. They learn from their parents how to catch insects, which seeds to eat and where to hide when danger occurs.

After the fledglings learn to fly and leave home, the parents may nest again, ensuring there will be enough meadowlarks to carry on the family name.

The western meadowlark, (Sturnella neglecta) belongs to the family Icteridae, that includes blackbirds and orioles. They measure about 11 inches long with a five-inch tail, thick stout body, large legs and a long straight bill. A unique foot structure allows the meadowlark to walk about on the ground, instead of hopping like other birds. A powerful flyer and lover of insects, they are an asset to landowners.

Found throughout North Dakota in prairies, pastures and meadows, the western meadowlark is dressed in a brown-streaked suit and a white-edged tail. They eat cutworms, grasshoppers and caterpillars, three of the worst insect pests known to man. They may also eat grain, but the great amount of harmful insects they consume far outweighs any damage they might do.

The meadowlark's habit of singing in the air, uttering a loud, beautiful song, while circling upon fluttering wings led to its popular name, "lark." Its preference for nesting in meadows gave it its first name, "meadow."

Often nesting in hayfields, many nests are destroyed by mowing. If the nest is lost early in the season, meadowlarks will nest again. When walking, hiking or farming in an area where meadowlarks are known to nest, watch where you step, mow and clear brush. In return, meadowlarks will come back year after year to brighten North Dakota's transition to spring.

Ann Bailey Dunn is a freelance writer from Campton, Kentucky. This is her first contribution to North Dakota OUTDOORS.

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