May 2, 2022
Photo by Michael R Jeffords.

Understanding and Appreciating Grassland Wildlife: Eastern Meadowlark

By Robert J. Reber

The eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) has all but disappeared from much of the Illinois countryside. No wonder. Much of what epitomized its presence is no more. Gone are the fields of clover, alfalfa, and timothy that were fed in and flew over. Gone are the fenceposts of hedge, cedar, and catalpa that once studded and separated farm fields—perches where it sat and sang its clear, pure whistling melody.

A chart indicating the decline of eastern meadowlarks in Illinois as estimated by the Illinois Spring Bird Count.
Decline of eastern meadowlarks in Illinois as estimated by the Illinois Spring Bird Count. The red portions of the line are periods of significant decline and the green are significant increases. Courtesy of the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Since about the mid-1960s, eastern meadowlarks have been declining as have other grassland birds such as bobolinks, short-eared owls, and grasshopper sparrows. In Illinois, populations have plummeted by 75 to 95 percent. Simply put, these losses can be blamed on the loss of grassland-like habitats as well as how remaining acres of these habitats are managed. Acres of corn and soybeans have replaced hayfields and pasturelands. And some of what remains is being managed differently, resulting in less nesting habitat. Cuttings of hay are being taken earlier in season and more often. Some pasturelands are grazed too intensively without ample time for regrowth to provide nesting cover. This occurs despite prudent management intensive grazing regimes that can be used to allow meadowlarks and some other grassland birds to nest successfully. 

The eastern meadowlark is actually a member of the blackbird family and not a lark at all. Many are year-round residents of Illinois, although most migrate for short distances—particularly those that breed in northern and central Illinois. They are ground feeders, mostly feeding on insects in spring and summer. However, in fall and winter, meadowlarks feed in flocks on weed seeds, waste grain and berries. They fly low over fields using a repetitive pattern of rapid wingbeats followed by short glides.

Not to be outdone by the antics of the males of other bird species, the male meadowlark shows off to attract females. Facing the female, he points his bill straight up and puffs out his chest, fully exposing his bright yellow chest adorned with the black ‘V.’ He may take short jumps upwards—all in full view of his potential mate-to-be—to add to the excitement of the moment. Sometimes, females are treated to simultaneous performances by two or more males. Each male usually mates with two, and sometimes three, females each year.

A graphic with a photo of a brown, yellow, tan, and black bird with its beak open mid-birdsong. Below the photo is text.

With no help from the male, the female builds her nest on the ground in areas of dense grass. Nests are often placed in a small depression and are usually well concealed and made of grasses and thin strips of bark. Nests are often elaborate affairs with grasses woven together to fashion domed roofs overhead and tunneled side entrances. Runways and trails often lead to the nests. 

Two to seven whitish eggs with brown and tan spots are laid. Eggs are incubated for 13 to 16 days. If the female is flushed during incubation, she may not return. So, be wary of making intrusions. Both the female and male feed the nestlings that remain in the nest for 11 to 12 days. After they leave the nest, the parents continue feeding them for at least two weeks. One or two broods are raised each year. 

This bird has an imposter—the western meadowlark. The differences are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye. Even experienced birders have trouble separating the two. Additionally, as might be expected, the two differ a bit in habitat preferences. While the eastern often inhabits wetter grasslands and meadows, the western prefers drier areas. Thus, the latter can often be found on the sand prairies along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Still, they often compete for territorial areas in similar habitats. Although we may have trouble telling them apart, they certainly don’t! Each species defends its own territory. Only very rarely do they hybridize. 

Need an emotional lift or a change in attitude? Go to a meadow, pasture, or other suitable grassland of more than an acre or two and take a morning walk. Listen for that mystical pure, clear and variable whistling song. Your day will be better for it.

Robert J. Reber is an emeritus faculty member in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has been a lifelong student of many aspects of the Natural World, including archaeology. Bob has served as a managing editor and author for publications such as The Illinois Steward magazine and the Illinois Master Naturalist Curriculum Guide.