Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

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Western meadowlark male singing
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Western meadowlark fact file

Western meadowlark description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyIcteridae
GenusSturnella (1)

With its melodious song and colourful plumage, the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) is one of North America’s most popular birds, earning it the title of state bird in no less than six states (3). While its name might suggest otherwise, the western meadowlark is not actually a lark (family Alaudidae), but rather belongs to the family that also includes the blackbirds and orioles (Icteridae) (2) (3).

The upperparts of the western meadowlark are a mixture of buffs and browns, patterned with black streaks and bars (3), and the underparts are a vibrant yellow with a prominent, black, V-shaped band on the upper breast (2). The crown is dark and there is a light line above the eye that becomes bright yellow between the eye and bill (3). The western meadowlark has a long, slender bill, long legs and a short, stiff tail (2) (3).

While there is little difference in plumage between the male and female western meadowlark, the female can be distinguished by being slightly less strongly marked, smaller in size and by having shorter wings. The juvenile of this species has paler yellow plumage on the underparts, and also lacks the recognisable black V-shaped marking on the breast, having a dusky streaking instead (3).

Described as buoyant and flutelike (2), the song of the western meadowlark is often delivered from high perches such as treetops and fence posts (3). The male has an average repertoire of seven songs, with the main song consisting of two phrases, beginning with whistling notes and descending into gurgling warbles. There is also a special flight song, which is an excited-sounding series of short-spaced whistles followed by twittering or warbling. The most common call, however, is a low ‘chupp’ produced by either sex in response to disturbance, or during courtship or territorial displays. The female may also produce a soft rattle and a ‘tee-tee-tee’ call during the breeding season (2) (3).

Where their ranges overlap, the western meadowlark can be extremely difficult to distinguish from the eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna). The most reliable means of distinguishing the two species is by their song, which is a more complex mix of whistles, warbles and gurgles in the western meadowlark (2) (3).

There are currently two recognised subspecies of the western meadowlark. Sturnella neglecta neglecta is generally paler than Sturnella neglecta confluenta (3).

Size
Length: 16 - 26 cm (2)
Wingspan: 41 cm (2)
Weight
89 - 115 g (2)
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Western meadowlark biology

Foraging for food on the ground, the western meadowlark uses a special behaviour known as ‘gaping’ to find food below the surface (2) (3). Inserting its closed bill into the substrate, the western meadowlark then uses strong muscles to force the bill open, creating a hole from which it can gather insects or grain (2)

The diet of this species varies with season, consisting mainly of grain in the winter and early spring, insects such as beetles, ants, weevils and grasshoppers in late spring and summer, and the seeds of weeds during autumn (2) (3). The western meadowlark will also occasionally feed on the eggs and young of other bird species, and also scavenge from carcasses during severe winters (2).

Breeding in the western meadowlark occurs between late March and August, with the males arriving on the breeding ground to establish a territory up to a month before the females (2) (3).  To defend a territory, a male may use posturing, singing, chase-flights and jump-flights, which involve the male springing up to a metre in the air before flying to a point several metres away. While physical contact during territorial disputes is uncommon, it can be potentially severe (3).

On arrival at the breeding grounds, a female western meadowlark will pair immediately with a male, and males with the largest song repertoires tend to be paired first (3). Each male western meadowlark usually pairs with two females at the same time, and courtship typically involves aerial chases (2) (3).

The female western meadowlark alone is responsible for nest building, using the bill to form a cup-like shape in an existing small depression in the soil, such as a cow hoof print. This is then lined with soft, dry grasses and pliable shrubs (2). The nest is usually concealed in dense vegetation, and may also have a partial or complete roof, and a runway or an elaborate tunnel leading to the nest entrance (2) (3).

Between 5 and 6 white, spotted eggs are laid, and these are incubated by the female western meadowlark for 13 to 16 days (2). The young are fed mainly by the female, although the male will occasionally deliver food, and the young fledge 10 to 12 days after hatching (2) (3). The fledged young remain dependent on the adult birds for a further two weeks, and rely on dense vegetation and their cryptic colouration to avoid predation. A female western meadowlark may produce two broods per year, although several attempts may be made in the event of unsuccessful nesting (3).

The western meadowlark is vulnerable to natural predators, with mammals such as the racoon (Procyon lotor), birds of prey and snakes all predating the nests of this species. The brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) may affect the reproductive success of the western meadowlark through brood parasitism (3).

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Western meadowlark range

A widely distributed species, the western meadowlark can be found in Canada, the United States and Mexico (3) (4). Its breeding range stretches from British Columbia to the Great Lakes in Canada, south through the United States and into northern Mexico (3) (5).

The northern reaches of the western meadowlark’s wintering range includes southern British Columbia, and this species can be found as far south as the states of Michoacán and Veracruz in Mexico (3). The limits of the western meadowlark’s eastern range are unclear, due to the difficulty in separating it from the eastern meadowlark (3).

The western meadowlark has also been introduced to the Hawaiian Island of Kauai (3).

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Western meadowlark habitat

An inhabitant of open grassland, the western meadowlark can be found at elevations from sea level up to 3,700 metres (3). Although this species is more common on native grassland, it can also be found on cropland with perennial grass cover, the weedy borders of cropland and roads, marsh edges and mountain meadows. Grass of a medium height is preferred, with the western meadowlark being less abundant on land with taller or woody vegetation (2) (3)

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Western meadowlark status

The western meadowlark is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Western meadowlark threats

While the western meadowlark appears to be in decline, its wide distribution and large population size mean that it is not currently considered to be of immediate conservation concern (4). Nevertheless, this species faces a number of threats, including the cultivation of its preferred grassland habitat, where farming machinery may destroy nests, fledglings and incubating adults (3). Management practices that result in the grass being too tall or too short may also have a negative impact on the western meadowlark (3).

Urbanisation, pesticide use, invasive plant species and fire suppression may all also reduce the amount of available habitat for the western meadowlark (2). This species is also sensitive to human disturbance, and is known to abandon the nest if disturbed while incubating (3).

While the western meadowlark is vulnerable to natural predators, by far the greatest predation threat probably comes from domestic cats (5).

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Western meadowlark conservation

Appropriate management of grassland habitat is likely to be beneficial to the western meadowlark. Controlled burning or grazing will maintain the grass at a level suitable for this species, as well as prevent the encroachment of woody vegetation and invasive plant species (3) (5).

In British Columbia, the western meadowlark is listed by the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (GOERT), which identifies priority species for future research and recovery efforts in the Georgia Depression (6). The western meadowlark no longer breeds in the region due to a lack of suitable habitat, and it is recommended that potential nesting habitat in the area requires management and enhancement in order to encourage this species to nest. Feral cat control is also recommended as a potential conservation measure (5).

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Find out more

Find out more about the western meadowlark and other bird species:

 Find out more about bird conservation in North America:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Brood parasite
An animal that lays its eggs in the nests of members of its own or other species; the host then raises the young as its own.
Cryptic colouration
Colouration that makes animals difficult to detect against their background, so serving to reduce predation. The colouration may provide camouflage against a background, break up the outline of the body, or both.
Feral
Previously domesticated animals that have returned to a wild state.
Incubation
The act of incubating eggs, that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Perennial
A plant that normally lives for more than two years. After an initial period, the plant usually produces flowers once a year.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a group that occupies and defends an area.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Western meadowlark (February, 2012)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Meadowlark/id
  3. Davis, S.K. and Lanyon, W.E. (2008) Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/104/
  4. BirdLife International - Western meadowlark (February, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9723
  5. Beauchesne, S.M., Chytyk, P. and Cooper, J.M. (2002) Western Meadowlark Stewardship Account for the Garry Oak Ecosystems of Southwestern British Columbia. Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, Victoria, British Columbia.
  6. Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (February, 2012)
    http://www.goert.ca/
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Image credit

Western meadowlark male singing  
Western meadowlark male singing

© Doug Wechsler / naturepl.com

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