Those gorgeous, yellow-breasted birds we have been seeing in our fields and pastures have more than good looks going for them. They sing! And their songs are much like human music.
I am talking about the Eastern Meadowlarks that breed in grassy fields, hay meadows and cropland stubble. If you drive through the southern part of Bee County, the agricultural fields there abound with these pretty songsters in spring and summer. The males stand on top of fence posts and sing their hearts out. I am sure you have seen them. As you drive by, the meadowlarks fly off, spreading their tails and showing off the white outer tail feathers. Their wings droop as they sail, and the overall impression one gets is of a triangle-shaped, brown bird with white patches on the trailing edges.
I especially like the Eastern Meadowlark’s main song. It starts on a high note, drops on the second note, and then finishes with a three-note phrase. An old jingle used by a grocery store in the College Station area fits the song’s tones and pace: “Let’s go Krogering!” But, of course, you may have never heard that jingle. The Sibley Guide to Birds (2000) says the Eastern Meadowlark’s song consists of “simple, clear, slurred whistles seeeooaa seeeeadoo.” However, words and syllables cannot really replicate the whistled tones. You simply must listen to samples of the song online, then go out and hear the birds singing to learn it. Perhaps you can whistle it. If not, you can make up your own mnemonic phase to help you remember it.
As pretty as it is, the Eastern Meadowlark’s song is no match for the Western Meadowlark’s music. Much praise has been heaped on the Western Meadowlark for its song. Arthur Cleveland Bent in his Life Histories of North American Blackbirds, Orioles, Tanagers, and Allies (1958) begins the chapter on this species as follows: “I shall never forget the day I first heard the glorious song of the Western Meadowlark; the impression of it is still clear in my mind, though it was May 30, 1901!” Bent goes on to write that he “could hardly believe it was a meadowlark singing, so different were the notes to those we were accustomed to in the east” and that the bird’s sweet voice seemed to “combine the flutelike quality of the Wood Thrush with the rich melody of the Baltimore Oriole.”
In 1881, Charles A. Allen, an accomplished musician and self-taught ornithologist, was able to illustrate 27 distinct songs of the Western Meadowlark in musical notation. Allen said that he knew of “no musical instrument whose quality of tone – timbre – is like that of Sturnella neglecta” (the Western Meadowlark). He suggested that “the tones of the Boehm flute and a good, glass dulcimer would represent it pretty accurately.” Wow! Allen must have been quite a musician as well as an ornithologist!
I confess that I do not know the songs of the Western Meadowlark. Although this species does occur in South Texas during the winter, it rarely sings during its stay here. Its congener, the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), winters here as well, and the two species form large mixed flocks of meadowlarks. The two species look so much alike that eBird lists them as a single taxon, “meadowlark species.” The only reliable way to distinguish the two meadowlarks is by their songs, and as I mentioned before, neither species sings much outside of the breeding season.
The Western Meadowlarks head back to the grasslands of western North America in March. Eastern Meadowlarks are residents of Texas and the eastern half of the United States, although some individuals do migrate northward to the fields and farms of the Midwest to breed. After a song-filled courtship in which the male meadowlark displays his golden breast with the black crescent emblazoned on it, the female meadowlark builds a grassy dome-covered nest directly on the ground. The nest is so well-camouflaged, that an observer has to almost walk up on it to find it. Sometimes a slight “runway” leading up to the side entrance of the nest can be seen in the surrounding grass, but this is easy to miss. Also, bird census studies indicate that a breeding pair needs about seven acres of territory in order to bring off a nest of young. That means that there is only one nest every seven acres of habitat. I am impressed that ornithologists are able to census breeding meadowlarks at all!
Meadowlarks have yet another quality which makes them a joy to have around: they eat insects. During the summer months, they eat “practically all of the principal pests of the fields and are particularly destructive to the dreaded cutworms, caterpillars, beetles and grasshoppers.” Adults probe the bases of plants and the surrounding soil for grasshopper nymphs to feed to their chicks. A nestling meadowlark needs to eat about every 10 minutes during the daylight hours. One account calculated that a nestling will eat 100 to 300 small grasshopper nymphs a day, and extrapolated a 10-days’ supply of grasshoppers for a nest of five chicks would be somewhere between 5,000 to 15,000 insects!
So what is not to like about meadowlarks?