Blane Klemek: The music of birds is all around us
Countless birdsongs throughout my lifetime have become indelibly etched into my mind from the moment I had first heard it. For example, 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, of course, 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. And who can forget the first time that they heard a sandhill crane? Indeed, for me it was when I was a teenage boy living on the family farm.
Thankfully, as I grew to adulthood, 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. So, too, during that dizzying summer of firsts, were the calls of marbled godwits, willets, northern shovelers, Sprague’s pipets, Virginia rails, and many more.
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. The 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.
It will be a while before we hear the song of the meadowlark and other migrant songbirds. It’s quiet outdoors now. Our resident birds, of those that will be with us throughout the long cold winter, have their own set of unique songs and calls. We can look forward to, for instance, the fee-bee song of the black-capped chickadee come late January. We can also enjoy the songs of pine grosbeaks, the nasal calls of white-breasted nuthatches, the somewhat annoying cries of blue jays, the croaks and rattles of common ravens, the hoots and cries of barred and great horned owls, and perhaps the maniacal vocalizations of pileated woodpeckers.
To be sure, all of this is good news for us bird lovers – their songs and calls are among us and around us throughout all of Minnesota’s four beautiful seasons as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.