Western Meadowlark

Sturnella neglecta

Western Meadowlark
David Mitchell / Flickr / CC by 2.0

The western meadowlark is named for its beautiful warbling song but in fact it is a member of the blackbird family, Icteridae, not the lark family or the warbler family. As the state bird of several western states, this is a popular and familiar songbird for many birders, but there are many more facts to learn about the western meadowlark than just its pretty song.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Sturnella neglecta
  • Common Name: Western Meadowlark, Meadowlark
  • Lifespan: 5-6 years
  • Size: 9-10 inches
  • Weight: 3 ounces
  • Wingspan: 14-16 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Western Meadowlark Identification

The western meadowlark’s colorful and boldly marked plumage is the key to its identification. Male and female birds are similar with a heavily mottled beige body, thin black stripes on the wings, a bold black V-shaped bib on the chest, and black spots or stripes on the sides. The throat, chest, and abdomen are bright yellow, and a small yellow patch can be seen above the eye. The head has dark stripes that contrast with a white eyebrow, and the gray bill is sharply tapered and somewhat long. The outer tail feathers are white, and the legs and feet are pale.

Juvenile western meadowlarks look similar to adults, but their markings may not be as sharp and their coloring can be duller overall.

The western meadowlark’s distinctive warbling song is its most easily identifiable characteristic. A short set of varied pitched notes are repeated with short pauses between them, and the birds are often found singing from perches such as posts, plant stalks, wires, and fences, which makes them easy to spot for visual identification. The song has a deep throaty sound, though the birds will also use “chip” and “chirp” calls. These birds are quite loud, and can often be heard from surprising distances.

Western Meadowlark vs. Eastern Meadowlark

Visually, the western meadowlark and eastern meadowlark are very similar, and only subtle differences separate the two species. Western meadowlarks have a yellow malar region, while eastern meadowlarks have buff or whitish malar stripes. Western meadowlarks also have paler tails with thinner barring, whereas eastern meadowlarks have dark centers to their tails and show thicker barring on their tail feathers. These visual clues do vary and can be difficult to see in the field, however, but the vocal differences between the two birds are more distinct. Both songs and call notes differ, and birders should practice birding by ear in regions where the two species’ ranges overlap in order to feel confident about proper identification.

Western Meadowlark Habitat and Distribution

Western meadowlarks are common in the central and western United States and the birds’ range extends are far north as southern Canada and south into Mexico. Western meadowlarks can be found as far east as the western halves of Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, and in their northern range, they even extend as far east as Michigan and southern Ontario, though eastern populations are much scarcer. These birds prefer open grassland, meadow, prairie, and pasture habitat but can also be found in cultivated fields and other rural areas. Regions with shorter or medium-length grasses are more likely to host western meadowlarks than areas with taller grasses.

Migration Pattern

Most of these birds do not migrate, remaining in the same range year-round. In the northern portion of the western meadowlark’s breeding range, however, including birds in the Dakotas, northern Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, and southern Canada, the birds will migrate seasonally. In winter, western meadowlarks extend their range slightly further east and also cover all of Mexico, including the Baja Peninsula.

Behavior

Meadowlarks are solitary birds or can be found in pairs during the breeding season, but at other times of the year they may form small flocks, especially in late fall and winter. In flight, these birds generally fly low above the grass with rapid wing beats rather than perching or flying at greater heights.

Diet and Feeding

Western meadowlarks are largely insectivorous, but also eat a wide range of seeds and grain in late summer and autumn. These birds forage on the ground, pecking and scratching to find each tidbit.

Nesting

Western meadowlarks are generally monogamous, though do not mate for life. The female partner builds her nest on the ground, using a natural dip, depression, or even a footprint as the base and lining it with grasses and weeds. Grass above the nest may also be woven together to create shade and protection as well as to help conceal the nesting site.

Eggs and Young

A mated pair of western meadowlarks will produce two broods of 3-6 eggs each per year. The oval-shaped eggs are white and heavily spotted with brown, red-brown, or purplish dots. Female birds incubate the eggs for 13-15 days, but both parents will feed the young chicks during the 11-13 day nestling phase until the hatchlings are ready to leave the nest.

Western Meadowlark Conservation

While these birds are not considered threatened or endangered, destruction of plains and prairie habitats can cause decreases in their populations. Overgrazing of pastures can remove food sources the meadowlarks depend on, and early mowing of hayfields can destroy western meadowlark nests. Field and pasture management that takes the birds’ needs into consideration is essential to protect their populations.

Tips for Backyard Birders

Western meadowlarks are not common backyard birds but will visit yards in rural, agricultural areas. Birders can make their backyard more attractive to these birds by providing ample perching areas, open areas, and grass seeds. Ground bird baths can also help attract western meadowlarks.

How to Find This Bird

Because western meadowlarks perch in the open and sing loudly, they are relatively easy to find within their range. They begin singing early in the day, and their bold markings make them easy to spot even from a distance. Look for these birds along rural roadsides or perched at the tops of solitary trees, bushes, or rocks in brushy fields.

Western Meadowlarks in Culture

Because of their widespread range, easily recognizable markings, and enchanting songs, western meadowlarks are popular as state bird symbols. In fact, the western meadowlark is the official state bird of six different states: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Only the northern cardinal symbolically represents a greater number of states (seven).

Explore More Species in This Family

Many different colorful and interesting birds make up the Icteridae bird family, including blackbirds, orioles, troupials, oropendolas, and caciques. Familiar relatives of the western meadowlark include:

Want to learn even more fun facts and information about all your favorite species? See our other wild bird profiles to discover many more birds to enjoy!