Blane Klemek: Majestic meadowlarks in Minnesota
Countless birdsongs throughout my lifetime became permanently etched into my mind from the moment I had first heard it. I was a mere 6-years-old when a singing male chipping sparrow introduced himself to me. Having awakened before the sun had fully risen and, try as I may, could not fall back asleep, I instead laid in bed for the longest time just listening to his song.
A year or so later on a northern Minnesota lake, a pair of loons delighted me for an entire week as our family vacationed at a small resort. Such amazing voices from such beautiful yet curious looking birds, I recall spending minutes on end learning how to mimic the birds.
Robins, mourning doves, Baltimore orioles, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds, and even house sparrows and all their assorted calls and songs were heard for the first time, one time, long ago, of notes that I can readily identify today only because of my natural curiosity then.
Thankfully, as I grew to adulthood and began waltzing through the years, I’m happy to report that those “first times” are still occurring. In the summer of 1995 I heard for the first time the wonderfully pleasant song of the ruby-crowned kinglet. In 1997 my head spun around to hear the soothing and charming wolf whistles of upland sandpipers wafting across prairie grasslands. From then on I stopped whatever I was doing just to listen and enjoy.
Perhaps though, leastwise for me, no other birdsong exists that evokes a more powerful sense of place and time as does the mellow, flute-like sweet song of the meadowlark. I don’t even have to see the bird to experience such emotions. Oftentimes it is the landscape alone that calls to mind those yellow-breasted musicians singing atop fenceposts, rejoicing in another springtime overlooking our farm fields.
There are two species of meadowlarks in North America, both of which occur in Minnesota: the eastern and the western meadowlark. The birds belong to the “blackbird” family, Icteridae, and include cowbirds, blackbirds, bobolinks, grackles, and orioles as other members. And of the 23 total species in the family, meadowlarks share their genus name, Sturnella, with no other.
Meadowlarks are grassland passerines that nest on the ground. There numbers were undoubtedly much greater during a time when herds of bison grazed throughout the Great Plains of North America. As prairie grasslands were converted for agriculture, meadowlarks began to disappear. Today’s meadowlark populations are restricted to considerably less of their once expansive former range.
The male birds of both species of meadowlarks showcase brilliant yellow breasts and striking, dark black “Vs” emblazoned just below their throats. Coupled with their loud, distinctive, and beautiful melodies, meadowlarks are both audibly and visually noticeable. To our own human eyes and ears, meadowlarks are unquestionably delightful birds to observe and listen to. But to meadowlarks, it’s all business.
Male meadowlarks sing resolutely from staked-out territories, advertising themselves to prospective mates and potential male rivals. Their bright yellow breasts are often directed into the sunlight, perhaps to reveal and reflect as much glory as they can, while warbled songs of such richness are belted forth repeatedly throughout the day.
Following a singing male’s repertoire, a few sharp whistles often clue a listener to a prelude of flight. And once airborne, the meadowlark spews a series of memorable rattling calls difficult to describe and impossible to write. From one perch to another, the meadowlark resumes its melodious song soon after landing.
Aside from the male’s sun-colored breast plumage, not much else is very notable about the meadowlark. The remainder of the bird’s plumage coloration is rather drab and comprised of mostly browns, tans, and blacks. But a diagnostic trait of both species is their white outer tail feathers. At rest, these feathers are barely noticeable, if at all. In flight, however, as the tail is fanned, the white outer feathers are distinctive. Furthermore, for the size of the bird, the tail itself is quite short.
Eastern and western meadowlarks are fairly easy to distinguish from each other as a pair, but alone is a different story. Where the species ranges overlap one another, most people rely upon song for identification. The eastern species’ song is a simple series of whistled notes, whereas the western’s song includes a more boisterous, flute-like series of warbling notes that spiral downward as it is sung.
Living in the woods, I miss the song and sight of singing male meadowlarks. But just a few days ago while standing on a sidewalk in the northwestern Minnesota town of Grygla and talking to a local man by the name of Chad, I was taken back to those boyhood days on the farm — though Chad was unaware of that fact.
As we talked about wildlife of the area, and particularly about elk, moose, deer, wolves, bears, Canada geese, and ruffed grouse, I heard the wonderful song of a lone meadowlark at the edge of town.
Chad probably didn’t notice, but I cocked my head slightly to listen to both him and the bird. As the two of us stood in the sunshine of a beautiful spring evening, the background song of that single meadowlark was music to my ears.
Indeed, meadowlarks, with their bright yellow breasts and songs of gold, are among the many avian treasures as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@ yahoo.com.