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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Meadowlark puts exclamation mark on spring’s arrival

Western meadowlark (Illustration by Mike Jacobs)

The meadowlark is the punctuation mark in the statement, “Spring has sprung!”

For the western meadowlark is a true migrant. Very few spend the winter so far north as this, and those that try do not usually survive. Although I’ve seen them in our area in late December, I’ve never seen one here in January or February.

By mid-March, I begin expecting them.

The meadowlarks are a little late this year. So far, I’ve seen only one, on Wednesday afternoon.

While the return of the meadowlarks is usually an occasion for joy, it is encumbered by concern for the plight of the species. Meadowlark numbers have been declining rapidly. They have become rare in the Red River Valley. Although they occur in good numbers west of the valley, their habitat is threatened there, and it’s a question of how long the birds can hold out.

So I will worry as I watch for meadowlarks this year.

Of course, no species is so emblematic of open grasslands as the meadowlark.

Perhaps none is so beloved of North Dakotans. Not only is its appearance a harbinger of spring, its voice is freighted with nostalgia for sunlight days on the prairie. Not for nothing does the state’s public radio network use the meadowlark’s song as the theme of its daily history tidbit.

Of course, the meadowlark is not the only grassland bird that’s decreasing as fences are pulled up, remnant grasslands turned over and ditches burned and tilled. A whole suite of species is at risk, many of them plain brown and little known — but still important components of grasslands.

This week’s illustration shows a meadowlark in full song in full summer, when the wild prairie roses bloom.

So ubiquitous were these species in the state’s early days, and so powerful their hold on the people’s affections in the middle years of the last century, that they were chosen to represent North Dakota as its avian and floral emblems.

As the new century opens, though, meadowlarks — and roses, too — are no longer so common.

Meadowlarks depend on heavy grassland cover. They hide their nests skillfully.

Unfortunately, leaving a small area of prairie doesn’t guarantee a meadowlark will survive. As the swatches of grassland diminish, are divided and fragmented, meadowlarks face new dangers. The small remaining patches invite predators, foxes, skunks and cats, especially.

North Dakotans are not alone in their affection for meadowlarks. Five other states — Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming and Oregon — have the meadowlark as their state bird, as well.

Two species

Actually, there are two species of meadowlark. The western meadowlark is the usual species here, although eastern meadowlarks sometimes occur in the Red River Valley counties. East of the valley and across Iowa, Missouri and the lower Midwestern states, the eastern meadowlark is more frequent. Its range follows such rivers as the Niobrara and the Platte westward across Nebraska.

The two species occur together in some areas, but in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, western meadowlarks are far more likely to be encountered, and in the western part of the continent, they are the only meadowlark to be expected.

There are some differences in plumage patterns, but by far the best way to differentiate the two species is by voice. The western meadowlark is a superb songster, the eastern an indifferent singer at best.

That’s how Meriwether Lewis discerned that the western meadowlark was a different bird than the eastern meadowlark, which he knew in his native Virginia.

Science didn’t take note — since Lewis’s journals lay unexamined for several decades after the expedition. So, John James Audubon applied the scientific name Sturnella neglecta to the species, because the western meadowlark had been overlooked.

Its family name, Sturnella, points to its relationship to the starling. So does its overall body shape and its short tail.

Meadowlarks are on my mind this week, as I anticipate their return — but also because Lloyd Omdahl made a gift of a magnificent print of a western meadowlark at my retirement reception last week. It had hung in his office when he was the state’ lieutenant governor.

After some arm twisting, I’ve decided not to give up the bird column, though. You can look for it next week in its usual spot.

Good birding!