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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide
Species Group: Bird
State: Special Concern (Breeding)
The eastern meadowlark is a robust, medium-sized songbird, typically 8-10 inches long with a wingspan of around 14 inches. Key markings are its vibrant yellow throat, chest, and belly, interrupted only by a thick black “V” on its chest. The head is alternately striped with black and pale, with the pale supercilium (“eyebrow” stripe) containing a bright yellow patch between the eye and bill. The eastern meadowlark also has a notably long and pointed bill, a short tail with white outer feathers, and a brown-streaked back.
Females look like the males but are smaller. Juveniles are paler overall and lack the black “V” on the chest, which is instead flecked in sparse brown spots. In winter, adults resemble the juveniles since their colors dull and their black chest feathers become pale-tipped.
Eastern meadowlarks often sing from fence posts, trees, and other elevated perches. Their song is a clean, sliding whistle (“TSEE-you TSEE-yer”), but they may also use a rattling call or send out alarm notes to assert territories.
The eastern meadowlark is not actually a lark (Alaudidae family), nor does it belong to the family of starlings (Sturnidae) as its Latin name – meaning “large little starling” – suggests. Rather, the eastern meadowlark is a member of the blackbird family (Icteridae) along with orioles, cowbirds, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, bobolinks, and others.
DISTRIBUTION AND HABITAT
Eastern meadowlarks are widespread in grassland habitats across roughly the eastern half of the US and southeastern Canada, ranging southward into northern South America. They are usually year-round residents, but northernmost populations migrate south for the winter. New Jersey's meadowlarks are most common in the agricultural areas of Sussex, Warren, Hunterdon, and Salem Counties and are often resident year-round, especially in the south.
Preferred habitats include grasslands, prairies, lightly grazed pastures, mixed-grass hayfields, and fallow areas with a low percentage of forbs and less than one-third shrub cover. Dense grasses between 10-20 inches tall (medium height) seem to be the most used for nesting. Meadowlarks may use cropland as well, although nesting is limited by the absence of grass cover. Ideal habitats have ample perches within the habitat or along the perimeter. Fence posts, tall forbs, shrubs, trees, and even utility wires can serve as perches. Eastern meadowlarks are area-sensitive birds, requiring at least 15-20 acres of unbroken grassland habitat for nesting.
Eastern and western meadowlarks are very similar and can be difficult to tell apart where their ranges overlap, which includes several central US states and the Great Lakes region. Occasionally an "accidental" western meadowlark turns up in New Jersey. Their songs are the best field identifier.
The eastern meadowlark eats mostly grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, ants, and other insects and insect larvae. Weed seeds, grains, and berries make up a smaller portion of the diet, except in winter when insects are scarce. The birds pick insects from the ground surface and also probe the soil with their bills. When winter weather is especially harsh, eastern meadowlarks may even feed on roadkill.
In the springtime, males arrive at their nesting grounds first to establish territories, followed a week or two later by the females. The males sing and display from atop a perch to attract mates and warn away competing males. Territories are typically around 7 acres - sizable enough for the two or sometimes three mates that a male will maintain at once. Each breeding female weaves a dome-shaped nest of dried grasses and other plant stems in a slight depression on the ground. The nest is well-camouflaged from overhead. It has an entrance on one side and may have a runway leading up to it.
Each clutch contains 2-6 (usually 4-5) white eggs with brown or purple speckles. The female incubates her eggs for 14 days and then broods the helpless, sparsely downy chicks. The male brings food for his mates to pass on to their young. The young are ready to leave the nest within two weeks. Nesting activity continues from mid-April through mid-August. Two broods per year are common and nesting can be re-attempted if a failure happens.
Eastern meadowlarks are resident throughout most of their range, including in New Jersey, though northern birds migrate south in the fall. They feed in flocks in winter. Eastern meadowlarks usually live up to 5 years.
CURRENT STATUS, THREATS, AND CONSERVATION
Eastern meadowlarks are declining drastically throughout much of their range due to habitat loss, though their global conservation status is still of “Least Concern.” In eastern North America, the loss of farmlands to development has shrunk grassland bird habitat significantly, while other open areas have reverted back to forests following the many decades of agricultural use and extensive logging that had originally made way for thriving grassland communities. The meadowlark’s range is growing in parts of western Central America.
Where agriculture still exists, high grain prices make it more lucrative for farmers to plant row crops, and hay farmers often harvest at least two cuttings per growing season as livestock forage. In the latter case, field mowing, raking, and baling cycles are likely to overlap with ground-nesting efforts by meadowlarks and other grassland birds, resulting in nests being destroyed and nesting cover being removed. Heavy livestock grazing also limits suitable nesting cover and can result in nest-trampling. Land is particularly expensive in New Jersey, forcing farmers to maximize their crops, grazing, and hay production to the detriment of ground-nesting birds. Domestic cats and dogs and wild predators like raccoons and foxes can be abundant around farmsteads and are known to prey on eastern meadowlark eggs and young.
Conservation and proper management of grasslands in New Jersey is critical to provide habitat for nesting eastern meadowlarks as well as other ground-nesting grassland birds. Farmland preservation and cooperative efforts with landowners are effective ways to increase breeding habitat for these birds. Since 2005, the Conserve Wildlife Foundation has worked with various partners and landowners to manage fields on a delayed mowing regimen that allows birds to complete their nesting season before hay harvesting is done. Native warm-season grass plantings have grown more common as a conservation practice for grasslands birds like the meadowlark. Mowing, grazing, and controlled burns are also built into maintenance plans to prevent shrubs and trees from taking hold.
For information on “growing grassland birds” on your farm, please visit our Grassland Project (http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/protecting/projects/grassland/) page.
Text written by MacKenzie Hall in 2011.
Species: S. magna
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