Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Eastern Meadowlark

 

Susan Post

 

Perhaps no bird is more representative of the farmland and open country of eastern North America than the Eastern Meadowlark. Growing up in rural central Illinois, I remember hearing meadowlarks singing on the fence posts at the edge of our property. It meant spring was here and school would soon be out!

The Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna, is not a lark at all but a member of the blackbird family—Bobolinks, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles—are their relatives, and they are one of North Americas most widely distributed species. Meadowlarks can be found in native grasslands, pastures, weedy cropland borders, or other open areas with good grass and litter cover. Since 1960 they have expanded their range west into the plains of southern Kansas and the Texas panhandle, and as forest is being cleared for agriculture in Central America, they are increasing in numbers in Costa Rica and Panama.

Eastern Meadowlarks are  medium-sized songbirds with pointed bills, slender heads, plump bodies, long legs, and short tails. Their breasts are bright yellow with  black crescents. When approached a meadowlark will squat down and hide its yellow upper parts—the dry grass pattern on its back should hide the bird as it tries to slink away. Otherwise, the bird will explode into flight where its conspicuous white tail margins can be observed.

Meadowlarks feed on top of the ground, probing beneath the soil and searching under sod clods for insects—grasshoppers, crickets,  cutworms, and caterpillars—that make up 75 % of their diet. Their winter diet consists of weed seeds and waste grain.

Male meadowlarks will usually have two concurrent mates and a successful first nesting is followed by the construction of a second nest. Nests are camouflaged in their grassland habitat. They are shallow depressions on the ground in fairly dense vegetation and are constructed by the female of dried grasses, plant stems, or bark. These are then interwoven and attached to the surrounding vegetation and lined with finer grasses.

A female will lay one egg per day during the early morning. A clutch is two to six eggs.  When the last egg is laid, she will begin to incubate them, which lasts 13 to 14 days. When the eggs hatch, the young are nearly naked and their eyes are closed. By day 8 the young are alert, active, and capable of leaving the nest if they are frightened. Within 10–12 days, they are fully fledged, and while their bodies are covered with feathers, they are incapable of sustained flight. By 21 days, they can fly and will be ready to mate the following year.

A meadowlark’s life span is three to five years and causes of death include poison grain used for rodent and insect control, exposure to deep snow and ice, mowing in the hay fields, predation by hawks, foxes, cats, dogs, skunks, and coyotes, and the disruption of eggs and nestlings due to human activity. Meadowlarks are extremely sensitive to humans in their breeding territory. A female flushed from her nest during incubation will usually abort. As for mowing, it is recommended to delay it until August to avoid destruction of the nest and young.

A note to those interested in a deeper view of this and other Illinois birds—“Have changes in land cover, agricultural practices and climate affected Illinois’s meadowlark populations?”  To find the answers check out the newest Illinois Natural History Survey publication Illinois Birds: A Century of Change. An Eastern Meadowlark graces the cover (see watercolor on this page).

 

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