By Jeannie Marcure
The first bird song that I learned to recognize as I was growing up on the prairies of eastern South Dakota was that of the western meadowlark. There, as here, spotting a meadowlark sitting on a fence post, head thrown back in jubilant song, was one of the rites of spring. Some twenty-five years later when I relocated to Western Montana, I was delighted to learn that not only did the western meadowlark live here, but that it was the state bird of Montana.
The first recorded observation of the western meadowlark was made by Meriwether Lewis on June 22, 1805 in the vicinity of the Great Falls of the Missouri. Lewis wrote about a lark with a yellow breast that resembled the size and color of the eastern lark but with a song was that was noticeably different from that of the eastern meadowlark and concluded that this was a new bird. Indeed, the western species sings a longer and more musical song than its eastern cousin. Freer and wilder, the song is identified by 7 to 10 flutelike notes, a much more complex and melodic sound than the clear whistles of the eastern species.
The selection as the Montana state bird began in 1930 when the state’s school children were asked which bird best represented their state. The response was overwhelming in favor of the meadowlark and in the next legislative session in 1931, state lawmakers made the selection official. Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming also claim the meadowlark as their state bird.
The meadowlark is a bird of the grassland and the first meadowlarks probably arrived with the prairies, on the heels of the retreating glaciers. Even now, when the once prairie landscape is dotted with development, meadowlarks still favor this environment. Anytime you see cattle or horses in a grassy field, you’re in meadowlark habitat. Watch the fence posts for a robin-sized bird with a black v-shaped breast band and a bright yellow chest. Male meadowlarks arrive first in the spring in order to secure the best possible nesting territory so that they will be able to win a mate when the females arrive several weeks later. Each male adopts a bragging post and spends several hours there in song each day. Although pleasing to human ears, the music is a no-trespassing signal to other meadowlarks and is the primary way that they defend their territories. Occasionally, however, the conflict can escalate into a physical confrontation and males sometimes fight by locking onto each other’s feet and rolling around in the grass, stabbing at each other with their beaks until one escapes and flies away, pursued by the victor. Shortly after such an encounter, the winner can be seen back on the bragging post announcing his victory.
When a female arrives, the male approaches with his colorful front toward her and his bill pointed upward and swelling out his breast. He also flicks his wings above his back and leaps up and down to get her attention. If the courtship is successful, they mate and the female begins construction of the nest. She starts with a hoof print or natural depression in the ground which she shapes by digging with her bill. Meadowlarks are equipped with complex bill musculature which allows them to force the bill open with considerable strength. This allows the bill to be inserted into the ground or among grass stems and then open, prying the material apart thus shaping the nest and entrance. When this happens the eyes rotate slightly forward allowing the birds to see directly between their jaws into the hole they have created. When the hole is established, she lines the nest with fine grasses and creates a roof by pulling the adjacent vegetation over her nest to form a dome. This task requires hundreds of trips to bring in needed materials and when finished the nest looks like a tuft of grass & weeds. It’s open on only one side and the entrance may be concealed by overhanging weeds or a roofed run of grasses. Meadowlarks are usually silent while nesting and caring for their young. When you hear a meadowlark singing in the summer, it means that the first brood had probably fledged and the parents are ready to start a second nest.
My favorite place to see and listen to meadowlarks is Smith Lake Road and since that’s also a great place to see both mountain and western bluebirds, you’ll want to plan your next birding drive out that way soon! Roll your windows down and listen for the cheerful call of a meadowlark looking for a mate! Spring in the Flathead Valley is a beautiful and fleeting season. ENJOY!