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Nature Notes

Eastern Meadow Lark

It’s that sound, that sweet melodious sound that makes me toss my hands up in jubilation, yell “Hot diggedy dog!”, grab my husband by the cheeks and plant a big kiss on his lips. It’s the song of the Eastern Meadowlark…the sound of spring.  

The Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) returns to Newton County each March after spending the cold winter in warmer areas of the US, Central and South America. It’s that time of year when the weather is warming, the earth is greening, and a pulse of energy is felt worldwide as the creatures great and small begin their annual seasonal migration. An ebb and flow rhythm felt all over the world, and even here now in Newton County. As I waive hello to the Eastern meadowlark perched on the irrigator pivot of the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery, there was a woman in central Texas who waived it goodbye just a few days earlier.  

The Eastern meadowlark is not actually a lark (family Alaudidae), but actually a member of the Blackbird family (Icteridae), a group of large songbirds with heavy pointed bills and long tails. Also in the Blackbird family are orioles, cowbirds, grackles, bobolinks, and of course, blackbirds.  

The Eastern meadowlark is roughly 9.5” long, with a wingspan of 14”, and weighs on average, 3.2 oz. The song is 2 clear whistles:  tee-yah (ascending), tee-yair (descending). Go on try it, it’s kinda fun. Some people think the song sounds appropriately like “Spring o’ the year”. The Eastern meadowlark’s call is a sharp electric buzz “ jerzik”. Try that one, it’s even more fun! 

The Eastern meadowlark is often seen perched with its head thrown back singing in pastures, prairies, open fields, agricultural fields, or even golf courses. When it is perched, you’ll notice the bright yellow feathers on the throat, breast, and belly. The breast is marked by a large black V pattern, you can’t miss it! Otherwise the body is brown and white streaked, fairly drab. If you should cause the bird to flush and fly off, you’ll notice its white outer tail feathers. 

The one bird that you might confuse the Eastern meadowlark with would be the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), whose range is for the most part Illinois and further west, but does occasionally occur in our Northwest Sector of Indiana. However, the Western meadowlark’s song is vastly different from that of the Eastern meadowlark. The Western meadowlark’s song is a rich gurgling warble “sleep loo lidi lidijuvi”.  

The Eastern meadowlark is considered a ground feeder. It’s diet consists of a wide variety of foods, including beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, weevils, ants, wasps, spiders, bugs, worms, and seeds and berries.  

During the spring and summer, a male Eastern meadowlark will often have two female mates in his territory. It’s the female Eastern meadowlark that builds the doomed grass nest on the ground. She begins the nest by excavating a slight depression in the ground. Then over the course of the next 6 days, she weaves the grasses together to form a domed nest very well hidden in the vegetation. After the nest is complete, she will lay 3-5 white eggs that have splotches of brown and lavender. She incubates the eggs for 14 days, and then, if all goes well, the hatching begins. 

In the 19th century, the numbers of Eastern meadowlarks in the United States actually increased as forests were cleared for grasslands and agriculture. In the 20th century, the numbers have decreased as open grassy suitable habitat is lost. But at Kankakee Sands Efroymson Family Prairie Restoration, we are seeing a surge in the number of Eastern meadowlarks as the landscape is revegetated with native prairie grasses and flowers.  

If you’d like to hear the sweet song of the Eastern meadowlark, come on over to the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery. In fact, if you come on March 19th, 2011 we’ll be transplanting seedlings in the greenhouse from 9 am to 12 pm CST. The plants will be planted later this year into our Kankakee Sands Prairie Restoration and in our nursery. Call Alyssa Nyberg, nursery manager, at 219-866-1706 for more information.

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