Eastern Meadowlarks in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

I grew up seeing "field larks" along roadsides in fields and pastures in southern Louisiana. These grassland birds are a mottled brown above which is perfect camouflage to hide them from hawks flying above. However, when viewed from below on posts, fences, and utility wires, the beautiful bright yellow throats and breasts highlighted by bold black V's stand out vividly. The face is pale with a brown-black crown on the head and similar colored stripes behind the eyes.

The eerie song, especially in the spring breeding season, is hard to miss. Many insist that they can hear the song as "spring of the year" with 3 to 5 loud descending whistles. There is also a high pitched, cackling rattle uttered from time to time.

The Eastern Meadowlark is the common ground lark of eastern North America. It is not a true lark. It gained that name because its song reminded European explorers and settlers of the larks in their homelands.

There is, of course, a Western Meadowlark which is common in the western part of North America. The Western Meadowlark is a much lighter brown than the Eastern Meadowlark.

However, it is distinguished from its eastern cousin primarily by song and call. This song is described as being flute-like and presented in two phases starting with several clear whistles, and a terminal phrase being gurgled, bubbling and complex. The calls and rattles of the two species differ as well.

The Western Meadowlark is a winter visitor to our region of the world arriving in November and leaving in March. So, that is when birders wishing to add the species to a year list need to carefully check flocks of wintering meadowlarks and listen for tell-tale calls and rattles.

Meadowlarks have long sharp bills that they use to forage on insects and other invertebrates in grassy areas. In winter, they also consume seeds in some quantity. Both species construct simple cup-shaped nests in the ground and then use grasses to create a dome covering them. There can be several runways through the grass to the nests.

Meadowlarks often choose hay fields for nesting. This creates a problem because the timing of hay cutting often conflicts with nesting season. Cutting hay can destroy many meadowlark nests. Conservation minded farmers interact with advisory agencies such as the Cooperative Extension Service to time hay cutting so that it does not interfere with meadowlark nesting.

The National Audubon Society lists the Eastern Meadowlark as a species of concern because of declining nesting success. This seems to correspond to habitat loss. Some specialists feel that the Eastern Meadowlarks thrived in the 1700s and 1800s as eastern forests were cut and replaced by farmland.

Various races of Eastern Meadowlarks are found in Mexico, Central America and northern South America. There are several meadowlark species in South America but they have red throats and breasts!

Meadowlarks are dumpy birds that somewhat resemble quail in shape. They commonly fly by flapping their wings and gliding but, when frightened, they fly rapidly straight from danger.

Guess what the meadowlarks' closest relatives are? Well, blackbirds and orioles! All of these birds have a characteristic rattle call but differ greatly in shapes, colors, behavior, and preferred habitats.