Stout and confident, this bird attains reach with its melodic song. From pasture to prairie and back, those inhabiting this grassy world know that song to belong to the eastern meadowlark, as even the star-nosed mole (functionally blind) stops and listens to the meadowlark’s declaration “spring of the year.”
A lemon yielded from a leafless gray hickory tree seems quite unlikely, yet every spring the meadowlark makes its way north into Wisconsin where grass will host it, revealing itself as a sweet and tart spring treat, all the way from Blue Mounds to Door County to the Bayfield Peninsula and back.
This bird, not a member of the lark family but rather of the tribe of blackbirds, possesses similar habits in feeding to other blackbirds; the eastern meadowlark will probe its beak into the soil, open the beak, then pick through the open hole for invertebrates. Crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and grubs make up much of the diet during the summer breeding season.
Enjoying large fields and savannas of open grassland, meadowlarks prefer taller vegetation, and are rather choosy about breeding in unburned prairies. This litter accumulation helps conceal the nest from potential predators, and the nest structure becomes a tent that hides the eggs/chicks, and can be quite effective camouflage.
Meadowlarks are among the first species to stake their claim to the recently defrosted Wisconsin landscape, arriving as early as February. Migration south occurs from mid-September through early November, though a handful of meadowlarks have overwintered in Wisconsin in the past decade. On that southern journey, meadowlarks will reside in open areas as far north as central Illinois, but commonly overwinter in the south-central United States.
Here at Faville Grove, I’ve seen just one meadowlark this spring, singing on from the top of the shed on Prairie Lane. The absence of meadowlarks here is curious, given the abundant grassland habitat and large acreage of prairie restorations, which meadowlarks are typically not shy about occupying. Recent sightings from eBird, as of 4/26/19, show the relative absence of meadowlarks in the centrally located area.
Significant population declines have occurred since the 1960’s, according to data from the National Breeding Bird Survey. Changes in agricultural practices have had major impacts on many grassland birds, including meadowlarks. Increased haying destroys nests, conversion from grass hay fields to alfalfa degrades habitat, and conversion of pastured areas to row crops eliminates habitat entirely. It’s possible that the intensity of agriculture and development north of Lake Koshkonong has considerably degraded habitat for meadowlarks. In any case, growing areas of prairie restoration at Faville Grove should provide ample breeding habitat, and we hope to see more meadowlarks in the future.
Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward
Header photo by Arlene Koziol