Photo credit: Bill Horn
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sturnella magna
OTHER NAMES: Old Field Lark, Field Lark, Common Lark, Marsh Quail, Crescent Starling.
STATUS: Breeder. Common in all seasons and regions. MODERATE CONSERVATION CONCERN.
DESCRIPTION: The meadowlark is a medium size bird 7-10 inches in length, with a wingspan of 14-16 inches, and weighing 3-5 ounces. When in breeding plumage, the adult male is easily identified by the yellow underside with a bold black “V” across the breast. The flanks of the body are white with black streaking. The central tail feathers are black, fading to buff or gray laterally with some barring, the outside three tail feathers are mostly white. The under tail coverts are also white. The back and upper wings are brownish streaked with black. The head is brown, white and black streaked with a yellow line above the black eye. The bill is about as long as the head and pointed. The legs and long toed feet are pink. Adult males in winter and adult females have a duller phase of the same coloration. The brightness of the coloration of the breast also diminishes as latitude increases. Hatching year birds do not have the bold “V” marking of the adult. Their breast is brown speckled.
DISTRIBUTION: The eastern meadowlark ranges north to southern Quebec and Ontario in Canada, the vicinity of the great lakes in the USA westward to the Great Plains, then south to the Gulf of Mexico. They also breed in Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, Central America and Northern South America. They are numerous on the Atlantic side of the continents with only occasional sightings on the western sides. In the northern extremes of their range, they are present only during the warmer months. Northern birds will make short leisurely migrations as winter weather worsens. They are year round residents in the remainder of their range.
HABITAT: The eastern meadowlark is an open field bird and is never found in dense woodlands. Instead they are located in prairies, meadows, pastures, golf courses, harvested croplands, and abandon fields. Research has shown that there must be a minimum of three acres of available habitat to support meadowlarks. Actual home range area can be as large as 15 acres and normally averages approximately 7 acres. Ideal habitat when foraging and loafing is herbaceous vegetation from 4 to 12 inches in height. Nesting habitat is taller grasses ranging from 10 to 20 inches. In old fields, the presence of shrubs is a negative factor when it comes to meadowlark habitat. If shrub coverage exceeds approximately one-third of the total field area it is no longer suitable habitat. Likewise, forbs exert a negative influence on grasslands utilization by meadowlarks. Scattered forbs in suitable habitat are acceptable, but fields dominated by forbs are seldom used. Perch sites for calling are a critical component of the habitat for meadowlarks. Prime habitat contains a minimum of one perch site every 100 feet. These perches are located within the usable habitat or along the boundary. Typical perches are fence posts, wire, shrubs, forbs, trees, or even tall grasses.
FEEDING HABITS: The eastern meadowlark is an omnivorous ground feeder. The bulk of their diet consists of insects. Research has revealed that crickets, grasshoppers, and beetles make up about one-half of the total annual diet. Other assorted insects and caterpillars comprise another quarter of the diet. The remaining one-fourth is vegetable matter in the form of weed seeds, grains, small fruits and berries. In exceptional situations, the meadowlark has been observed feeding on carrion (dead animals).
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The loose flocks of meadowlarks that have wintered together break up as spring approaches. The females depart first followed later by the males. Northern bound birds migrate in small flocks called pods or alone to their breeding grounds. Those migrating to Canada normally arrive in May. Males perch and sing to attract a female. If a competing male invades the territory that an established male has chosen, a conflict ensues with the weaker bird expelled. The male does not exhibit an elaborate courtship ritual. The female pays little attention to the male as he sings and chases her. Eventually she allows him to accompany her and they search together for a nesting and brood rearing site. Two nesting females sometimes occur within one male’s territory.
The female constructs the nest on the ground typically in 10 to 20 inch tall grass. It is a scooped out depression in the soil lined with fine grasses and other material. A circular shelter is woven with grass into the surrounding vegetation to enhance concealment. Sometimes a narrow tunnel is built leading to the actual nest. Both the male and female incubate the eggs. When one is sitting, the other brings the mate food.
A clutch will range from two to six eggs, each slightly over one inch in length and three-quarters inch diameter. Their coloration is white with brown specks. Meadowlark eggs require incubation for approximately 14 days. Newly hatched young are blind, helpless and require feeding by the parents. At the approach of a parent, the near naked young open their multicolored mouths of red, yellow, orange and blue to receive the insect meal. The young birds will fledge at two weeks of age. However, they are too weak to fly. They gradually move away from the nest site seeking food independently and are not brooded by the parents. During this dispersal period they are most susceptible to predation and accidental death. Most young will be within 60 to 250 ft of the nest site during the first week after fledging. During the second week after fledging they can usually be located within 300 ft. of the nest. During the third week, some range as far as 3 miles. Meadowlarks raise two broods per year.
The summer and fall are spent foraging and loafing either sitting in the grass or perched within their home range which averages about 7 acres.
Meadowlarks breeding in ‘the northern quarter’ of their range migrate to escape harsh weather. Meadowlarks in the middle and southern latitudes typically do not migrate unless forced to by severe weather. During the winter, meadowlarks form loose groups that feed in the same field but not very close together.
Answers.com An online site accessed 12/3/2008 at http://www.answers.com/topic/eastern-meadowlark-1
Audubon, John James, Birds of America, An online site sponsored by the National Audubon Society, Inc. Accessed 12/3/2008 at http://www.audubon.org/bird/boa/BOA_index.html
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds, An online site about birds. Accessed 12/3/2008 at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Eastern_Meadowlark_dtl.html
Cruickshank, Allan D. and Helen G. Cruickshank, 1976. 1001 Questions Answered about Birds, Dover Publications, Inc. Pages176, 195.
Kershner, Eric L, Jeffery W. Walk, Richard E. Warner, Postfledging Movements and Survival of Juvenile Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella Magna) in Illinois accessed online 4/1/2009 BioOne Online Journals at http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1642/0004-8038%282004%29121%5B1146%3APMAS
Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor, 1936 Birds of America, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York. Page251.
Schroeder, R. L., and P. J. Sousa. 1982. Habitat Suitability Index Models: Eastern Meadowlark. U.S. Dept. Int,, Fish Wildl. Serv. FWS/OBS-82/10.29. accessed online at www.nwrc.usgs.gov/wdb/pub/hsi-029.pdf
United States Geological Survey, An online site about natural resources of the U S. accessed 12/3/2008 at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/fram1st/i5010id.html
Whatbird.com An online site about birds accessed 12/3/08 at http://identify.whatbird.com/obj/582/_/Eastern_Meadowlark.aspx
Wikipedia, An online publication accessed on 12/3/08 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki?Eastern_Meadowlark
AUTHOR: Steve Bryant, Certified Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.