Here in Kentucky, our Eastern Meadowlarks have returned and are perching on fenceposts all over. These birds sound to me a lot like the ones I got used to back home in Arizona, but according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Easterns have 50 to 100 different variations of their song, where the Westerns only have around 10 to 12 variations!
The Eastern Meadowlark is scientifically named “Sturnella magna”, and they’re actually classed as a blackbird, not a lark at all. Whatever class they’re in, they are a delight to the eyes and ears. If you have pet birds, you may enjoy looking up the different songs and playing them for your house birds – mine get very excited to hear wild birds singing in the house early in the morning!
With that bright yellow breast and black necklace, Easterns are a very distinctive sight in the country here in Kentucky. We have a couple of pairs along the little creek below our house, and the males keep really close tabs on each other, constantly singing back and forth to make sure no-one is invading!
Apparently, the two species can be found in the same habitats in places such as Texas. Researchers from Texas A & M found that the two do not interbreed (other research has shown that they do on occasion), and I think that’s because the females know perfectly well which kinds of songs they like better! The two are pretty hard to tell apart in the field, though, for us humans. Males of the two species will defend their territory against each other, too.
Western Meadowlarks (“Sturnella neglecta”) aren’t seen much in the low deserts in Arizona, (except in artificial grasslands like golf courses), but in the high desert the habitat is a lot more like the grasslands that they favor.
Meadowlarks are really easy to spot, even if they flying away from you! They’ve got a distinctive flight pattern, and a very short, broad tail compared to the other songbirds I can see at this time of year. They’re so lovely to have around, always seeming cheerful and always ready to sing.
Both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks feed on grains, seeds and insects. They often feed by inserting their bill into the soil and then pushing it open (gaping) to reach seeds and insects that are beneath the surface.
They both build nests on the ground, in a small depression, lined with grass and bark. Some Meadowlarks even make little canopies and tunnel entrances by weaving grass stems together.
Meadowlarks lay from 2 to 7 eggs incubated by the female for 13 to 16 days. The babies stay in the nest for 10 to 12 days, and the parents feed them for another couple of weeks until they can fly well. They’ll raise one or two clutches each year, but if you’re out looking for nesting birds, be careful! A female Meadowlark will abandon her nest if she’s forced away from it!
And then there’s the Horned Lark – who is actually a lark! Back home in the high desert, we had literally CLOUDS of them! They’d come to water in a huge flock, dipping and diving, taking turns flying, foraging and drinking at least twice a day.
Horned Larks are really cool, about half the size of the Meadowlarks, and with a nifty black and white mask that stands out in the crowd. The “horns” are just little tufts of feathers, and in my experience are not that easily seen. The big giveaway here was the mask, and the size, and the fact that I nearly always saw them in a group.
This photo (above) is really cool because it shows the pale yellow throat, which you may not be able to spot outside without binoculars. “Eremophila alpestris” will nest on the ground very early and usually next to a grass clump or rock. The female builds her nest with grass and weeds and lines it with fine grass or plant down like thistle seed down.
Horned Larks usually lay from 2 to 5 eggs which are incubated by the hen for around 10 to 12 days. Both parents feed the babies in the nest for 9 to 12 days, but the young won’t be able to fly for another weeks or so. In the north, Horned larks only get to raise one brood, but farther south, they may raise as many as three.
A few farmers in the Midwest are starting the practice of leaving “Prairie Strips” in their fields among the corn and soybeans. In Iowa, the tallgrass prairie covered about 85 percent of the land in the 1830’s. Now, less than one-tenth of one percent of Iowa still holds the original prairie ecosystem. These “Prairie Strips” offer habitat for an incredible number of plant and animal species, and farmers employing them are finding them valuable to catch and filter run-off during heavy rains.
The Iowa State researchers who spearheaded this practice in 2007 are hopeful that it will spread to neighboring farms, and their research results after ten years showed that a ten percent conversion to “Prairie Strips” actually gave a high return on the farmer’s investment! Soil loss by erosion was reduced by 95 percent, and loss of phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil dropped by 77 percent and 70 percent. When you realize that the soil lost to erosion takes years to re-build, and that the farmer is having to pay for all that fertilizer, that’s a really significant number!
I hope I didn’t get too far off track today, and as always, invite you to send comments, complaints, or criticism to me: FlamingPurpleJellyfish@gmail.com Thanks for reading!
With Grace and Gratitude,