What to See Now: Western Meadowlarks
In celebration of the Year of the Bird, we will highlight some of the birds and their behaviors that you can observe at certain times throughout the year.
While driving along a gravelly country road, I notice a squat shape sitting on a fence post bracing itself against a stiff Colorado breeze. To me, it looks a bit like a crude grade-school art project where the assignment is creating a bird by applying a chocolate chip beak and popsicle stick tail to an egg — a dull, mottled, grayish brown, grumpy egg. But then it raises up, exposing its bright yellow and black “V for varsity” sweater vest and bursts into song. If its melody isn’t the official song of the prairie, it deserves it as much or more than anything on country radio. Whether the song of the western meadowlark is cheerful or soulful is up to the listener, but the melody signals spring in Colorado’s grasslands.
Male western meadowlarks mark their territory and attract mates by singing a short, two-phase song that begins with 1–6 whistle-like sounds followed by a series of 1–5 gurgling warbles. Males may each sing a repertoire of 10–12 songs that they vary due to circumstances: Some melodys to attract responsive females, other songs to chase off competitors or intruders. Males will work to establish their territories for a month or so before the females arrive.
Once a male has laid claim to its territory, it will mate with two or so females. Although males will bring food to the chicks and protect the nest, the females do most of the heavy lifting of raising the young. Female western meadowlarks build their nests by scraping cup-like shapes in the dirt and lining the indentations with soft, dry grasses and vegetation. Sometimes, the females will weave surrounding grasses and shrubs to create a roof above the nest. Finished nests are approximately 8 inches across, with a cup about 4.5 inches in diameter and 2.5 inches deep. Into this nest, they will lay 5–6 eggs. Western meadowlarks will raise one or two clutches a year.
Meadowlarks are members of the blackbird family and are about the size of a robin, with relatively stubby wings when compared to other songbirds. These stocky birds’ preferred habitats are grasslands, prairies, meadows and some agricultural fields, avoiding wooded edges and areas with heavy shrubs. They forage for insects, grass and weed seeds, and, occasionally, the eggs of other birds or even roadkill.
My favorite memory of a western meadowlark came this spring in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. I had stopped my truck along a backroad to photograph a male sitting on a powerline. As the male sang, an American kestrel swooped down and landed on the tower just feet away from the startled meadowlark. They acknowleged each other like commuters at a bus stop and then went along with their business — the meadowlark kept singing while the kestrel groomed itself. This went on for a few minutes (and more than 50 shutter clicks on my camera), until each of them went their separate way, neither knowing they had become characters in a story.
Wayne D. Lewis is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors magazine.