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Always in Season: Meadowlarks evoke nostalgia for North Dakotans

Today finding a meadowlark in Grand Forks County requires a car and some patience.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

When Suezette and I arrived at Prairie Home Cemetery in Gilby, N.D., for the Memorial Day ceremony, we heard a meadowlark sing. And sing again. Or perhaps there were two larks challenging each other.

The sound was appropriate for Memorial Day, I thought. North Dakota’s patriots who died in the nation’s wars would have missed hearing the meadowlarks sing. Meadowlarks are strictly American birds.

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Their song is loud and easily recognized – an iconic sound of North American grasslands. Meadowlarks evoke nostalgia in transplanted North Dakotans everywhere. This isn’t unexpected, of course. The western meadowlark is North Dakota’s state bird.
The latest example happened early in the week, when a cousin who lives in Minneapolis wrote about missing the meadowlarks that she heard from the backyard of her childhood home on the outskirts of Williston, N.D., a spot grassy enough to attract meadowlarks. Williston has been transformed since we were children visiting our grandparents, who had a small house on the east side of town, not far from Little Muddy Creek and within earshot of singing meadowlarks.

Another cousin – other side of the family – spent her career in Tanzania as a teaching Maryknoll nun. Tanzania has a host of exotic birds, she testified, but no meadowlarks, and she missed them. Meadowlarks are secure on the farm where she grew up, which is less than a mile from the Saskatchewan border and fewer than 30 miles from the Montana border – in plain terms, the extreme northwestern corner of North Dakota.

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Once, when I visited South Africa with a group of U.S. newspaper editors, the owner of a bookshop just off Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square interrupted my browsing. “Don’t hear that accent very often,” he declared. I told him I was from North Dakota. He immediately asked about meadowlarks. Turned out he’d spent time here.

Not long before she passed away, my dear friend Mary Margaret Frank called and asked if I could take her somewhere so that she could hear meadowlarks. She grew up in Grand Forks, when the city was very much smaller than it is today, but her home was in the leafy older part of town. No meadowlarks there.

We drove west until we reached a sizable patch of prairie, pulled over, parked the car, opened the windows, poured ourselves coffee and listened to the meadowlarks.

My first spring on UND’s campus, in 1966, it was possible to find meadowlarks just west of campus, and a short walk on a spring morning often produced singing meadowlarks. It was still possible to walk to suitable meadowlark habitat when Suezette and I moved back to Grand Forks in 1981.

The question I hear most frequently nowadays is, “What’s happened to the meadowlarks?”

Today finding a meadowlark in Grand Forks County requires a car and some patience. It’s not urban encroachment that has caused the steep decline in meadowlark numbers, though. Rather, it is the intensification of agriculture. The coming of bigger machinery, better drainage systems and the crop insurance program enabled and encouraged converting grassland to cropland, to the detriment of meadowlarks.

In 2015, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department listed the meadowlark as a “species of conservation priority” in its State Wildlife Action Plan. By that time, the meadowlark was considered rare in eastern North Dakota.

Suezette and I are lucky. There’s a sizable stretch of grassland in our area, much of it on Campbell Beach, which marks one of the “stillstands” of Glacial Lake Agassiz. I could get up from my keyboard and walk a quarter of a mile or so and be pretty certain to hear a meadowlark. Many days, I hear them early in the morning as I work in the garden. They don’t come in the yard, however. Their closest approach is a utility pole just beyond our shelterbelt.

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Farther west, where more land is used for pastures, meadowlarks are holding their own.

There’s reason for hope. The Game and Fish Department and partnering organizations have received a grant to launch a “meadowlark initiative” aimed at protecting critical habitat for the birds. Herald Outdoors Editor Brad Dokken reported this May 1 in the Herald.

The federal program involved is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Essentially, the program “offers incentives for qualifying producers to implement conservation practices on working lands.” Farming for meadowlarks, in other words.

It’s a worthy effort, and it will provide habitat for meadowlarks, but it won’t bring back so many meadowlarks in so many places that every North Dakotan encounters one just by listening.

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Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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Mike Jacobs


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