Western Meadowlark: A Western Greeting

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Western Meadowlark

His home is in Montana.

. . . "the note" differs considerably . . .

Western Meadowlark

© A & S Carrey/VIREO

Play Western Meadowlark Song

Recorded by Richard Kuschel

The counterpoint of melodies in this morning sing-along features backup tunes from a Clark's nutcracker, a magpie, a Montana horned owl, and an anonymous warbler or two.

O lovely, lovely, chanting arrow Lark,
Sprung like an arrow from the bow of dark,
O Lark, arise!
Sing the dayrise, the great dayrise!
—Genevieve Taggard

Birds of a feather . . .

One thing was foremost in Lewis's mind that Saturday morning in June 1805, on the Corps' first tough trip from Portage Creek across the cactus-paved prairie to White Bear Islands. At long last he was going to begin assembling "the experiment"—the iron boat. Nevertheless, when his ear was seared by the fanfare of a familiar-looking bird, he killed a specimen and took time out to study it up close, and make a few notes.1 "There is a kind of larke here," he wrote,

that much resembles the bird called the oldfield2 lark with a yellow brest and a black spot on the croop; tho' this differs from ours in the form of the tail which is pointed, being formed of feathers of unequal length; the beak is somewhat longer and more curved and the note differs considerably; however in size, action, and colours there is no perceptable difference; or at least none that strikes my eye.

At Fort Clatsop the following March, he mentioned it briefly in a summary of birds they had seen to date: "The lark is found in the plains only and are the same with those before mentioned on the Missouri, and not very unlike what is called in Virginia the old field lark."

He was correct, for the two birds are almost indistinguishable. In the Mississippi valley, where their ranges overlap, they actually interbreed, and some males even sing the songs of both species.3 They're easier to spot today than they would have been in Lewis's day, for in spring they're most often seen singing from atop those handy modern conveniences, fence posts.

. . . flock together.

N either kind is claimed by the European Aulaudidae (ah-LAW-di-die; Latin for lark) family, which includes the horned lark, and the skylark of poetic fame.4 The North American meadowlarks are the sole members of a genus named Sturnella (stir-NEL-ah), which is Latin for "starling-like." In springtime they meet their mates, and during the summer build their nests in meadowlands and cultivated fields throughout the middle latitudes. Back East, the expression "old field" denoted land exhausted by cultivation and no longer worth tilling, and thus made ideal nurseries for the species.5

In the fall, easterners fly to Central America and Brazil, and westerners to Mexico, where they pass the time in flocks of as many as 100 birds. That qualifies their genus for membership in the avian family named Troupial—(TROO-pee-al), Latin for troupe, or flock. Among the meadowlarks' cousins, with similar seasonal proclivities for mob scenes, are blackbirds, orioles, grackles, and cowbirds.6 The eastern meadowlark is now officially known as Sturnella magna (MAG-na; large), although it is about equal in size to its neighbor "standing eight inches tall, measuring eight to eleven inches from beak-tip to tail-tip, and having a wingspan of from thirteen to seventeen inches." The one Lewis found in the West languished nameless until John James Audubon dubbed it neglecta (nee-GLEK-tah; Latin for neglected) because, he wrote in 1840, although "the existence of this species was known to the celebrated explorers of the west, Lewis and Clark, . . . no one has since taken the least notice of it." The two are generally of equal size.

Unapologetically, Audubon concluded his description with the remark that its flesh resembles that of the eastern species, "and is indifferent eating."7 If that sounds bizarre, or even heartless, it should be recalled that by the end of the nineteenth century some of our forebears had eaten the beautiful—and correspondingly delicious—passenger pigeon into extinction.8

1. The "croop," properly crop, is the pouch in a bird's throat where food is partially digested, or is stored for regurgitation to nestlings.

2. The once-common term oldfield referred to land exhausted of nutrients by unvaried use for single crops, and allowed to lie fallow. Thomas Jefferson devised a crop rotation plan to prevent that degradation and improve productivity of his farmland. George McJimsey, Topographic Terms in Virginia; American Speech, Reprints and Monographs, No. 3: Columbia University Press, 1940. Before the discovery of the benefits of natural, and later chemical, fertilizers, the descent of farmland into oldfield condition was one of the forces that continually drove North American settlers westward.

3. Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988), 608, 610.

4. The skylark, Alauda arvensis (ah-LAW-dah, "lark"; ar-VEN-sis, "field") was introduced on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, about 1902.

5. George Davis McJimsey, Topographic Terms in Virginia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), 98.

6. But not starlings, which comprise a large family of their own, the Sturnidae, containing 111 species worldwide. The familiar Sturnus vulgaris, or common starling, was introduced to the U.S. in the 1890s; by 1950, immigrant starlings had colonized the continent from coast to coast.

7. John James Audubon, The Birds of America, in Audubon's Multimedia Birds of America, http://www.abirdshome.com/Audubon/VolVII/00799.html.

8. Lewis and Reubin Field lunched on a few passenger pigeons at Camp Disappointment on July 25, 1806.