The Prairie Musician
Some birds live in the trees, and some love lakes, but the meadowlark
is a bird of the grassland. The first meadowlarks probably arrived in the
Midwest at the same time as the prairies, on the heels of retreating Ice
Age glaciers. And although the prairie is gone now, meadowlarks still sing
over the land where the bison once roamed.
When you're driving in the countryside and you see cattle or horses in
a grassy field, you're in meadowlark habitat. Watch the tops of fence posts
for a bird with a yellow front like a broad shield made of gold. In spring
each male meadowlark adopts a bragging post, where he spends several hours
each day in song.
Male meadowlarks arrive in Iowa in March or April. Each one's immediate
mission is to secure and hold the best possible nesting territory, so that
he will be able to win a mate when the females arrive several weeks later.
You may hear the meadowlarks duelling, song parrying song. Beautiful
as they sound to human ears, the melodies contain a lot of pugnacity. Music
is a no-trespassing banner to other meadowlarks and the primary weapon with
which the birds defend their kingdoms.
However, the conflict can escalate beyond competitive music making. If
a male meadowlark physically enters another's domain, the two birds can
get down and fight. They lock onto each other's feet and roll about on the
ground, stabbing at each other with their beaks, until one escapes and flies
away, pursued by the victor. A few minutes later, the winning meadowlark
is back on the bragging post, singing his claim.
Face to face with a meadowlark, you'd think it was nearly all yellow,
because the front-facing parts (throat and breast) are the color of daffodils.
A black crescent on the chest, shiny as the satin lapels of a tuxedo, serves
as contrast. Also from that vantage point, you see a bright yellow spot
above and forward of each eye.
If you find your meadowlark in the morning or late afternoon, you'll
probably notice that he's facing the sun, as if his own warm color is drawn
magnetically toward its source. Or perhaps he orients himself that way to
maximize the impressiveness of his appearance.
From the top side, meadowlarks make no impression at all. Their streaked
backs so much resemble dried grass that a meadowlark on the ground is almost
impossible to spot from above. Hard luck for hawks.
By the time the females arrive, the males have pretty well worked out
the boundaries of their estates. A successful male reigns over six or seven
acres of pasture or hayfield. Now his primary attention turns to mating.
Meadowlark courtship and nesting
Male and female meadowlarks look alike. You can tell them apart only
by their behavior. I like to imagine what the female meadowlark sees when
this knight in golden armor prances up close, carefully keeping his colorful
front toward her, and points his bill up in the air to show off his yellow
throat and swells out his yellow breast and flicks his wings above his back
and leaps up and down to get her attention.
If he succeeds in wooing her, they will mate, and the female will begin
construction of a nest. She starts with a hoofprint or natural depression
in the ground, which she shapes by digging with her bill. She lines the
nest with fine grasses. She creates a roof by pulling the adjacent vegetation
over her nest to form a dome, weaving it together with dried grasses that
she carries to the site.
She makes hundreds of trips bringing materials. When she's finished,
the thatched dome is waterproof. The nest looks like an ordinary tuft of
green and brown weeds. It is open only on one side, and this entrance may
also be hidden by overhanging weeds or by a roofed run. For birds who nest
on the ground, in easy reach of predators, concealment is the best defense.
Concealment does nothing however to protect them from their worst tiger,
the mower. The birds are in the middle of nesting during June and July,
and if alfalfa is mowed early, many nests are destroyed.
Meadowlarks are relatively silent while they're nesting and caring for
the young. If you hear a meadowlark resume his singing in summer, you'll
know the first brood has probably fledged, and the parents are about to
start a second nest.
Two species of meadowlarks
Not all meadowlarks sing the same song. We have two species in the United
States, Eastern Meadowlark and Western Meadowlark. They look almost exactly
alike, but their songs are easy to tell apart.
The Eastern Meadowlark whistles a melody of about four or five
notes. It's simpler than most bird songs. To me it sounds like, "Oh
sweet Rose Marie."
The Western Meadowlark sings a different sort of song. It's complicated
and difficult to reproduce, with doubled notes and an almost gurgling quality.
It sounds like a flute, but a flute blown by no human player. Some describe
it as starting with slow notes and then speeding up, as if the bird were
singing "U-tah's a beautiful place to live."
In the prairie states, meadowlarks are most conspicuous in spring, when
the males are advertising their presence with song. Keep a car window open
so that you can hear them. When you do, stop and study the fenceposts up
ahead. A meadowlark will stay on his post if you drive past without stopping,
but he'll fly away the moment you apply the brakes. So I like to drive slowly
on country roads. That way I can stop at a non-threatening distance and
look at the bird through binoculars. (This is advised only on less well
traveled back roads.)
If he flies away from his bragging post, wait. He'll come back, and you
can get a long close look, and a good listen, too.
Listen deep. You're hearing the same song that the bison listened to
for ten thousand years as they grazed on the flower-studded prairie. I think
that something of that prairie survives in the melody.
Copyright © 1997 by Diane Porter. All rights reserved