Birding Tips









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.

Meadowlark habitat

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.

Meadowlark music

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.

Meadowlark colors

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

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