The call seeps through the windows of the car, as if I were sinking in the sound. Rolling down the window causes a cascade of diamond clear sparkling notes to wash over me, carried on the wind, dispersed across the waving blades of newly growing grass. The meadowlarks have returned.
I first heard the sound drifting across the road in central Pennsylvania. Its clarity confused me. Binoculars in hand I scanned the overgrown field as cars rushed past. Nothing. Across the busy highway, the barbed wire tugged at my shirt as I leaned against a still sturdy yet aged fencepost and listened. There it was. Such impossibly crystal notes, like a flute not quite of this world, but somewhere more pure.
I scanned again, a flash of yellow and I backtracked. A bird, sitting on a fencepost, threw back its head, and that sound - as if the grassland itself were singing - erupted from it with such enthusiasm. It was an Eastern Meadowlark, and to this day it still enchants me, perhaps even haunts me, every time I hear it. It is a sound that momentarily makes the rest of the world invisible.
A meadowlark rests on branch.
Photo by Mon@rch
Eggs rest in a meadowlark nest.
Photo by Michael C. Allen
Sadly, Eastern Meadowlarks are in decline in the eastern part of their range (that's here) and have been for decades. There are a few reasons why that might be happening, from habitat issues to competition to human factors. In any case, it all adds up to the fact that there are people that may never hear the sound of them singing.
Meadowlarks balance their showy, bright yellow underparts with a streaky, camouflaged back. They flash white outer tail feathers as they fly from ground to perch and back again. Their awl-like beak and their behavior have earned them the nickname of "marsh quail."
The ones I heard this week singing in the field were the males. They return before the females, set up their territories and begin defending them and posturing to other males. Their efforts become obsessive, even frantic, as they fling themselves straight up in the air, up to four feet, in mock battles with neighboring males. Their fervor increases to such a threshold that they will often, ahem, mistake clumps of grass for females and attempt to mate. I did not witness that particular action, though. Perhaps it is too early.
This defensive behavior is seen for the breeding season only. The rest of the time Meadowlarks are very social, often seen in flocks of hundreds. Not now, though. A male will often have more than one female in his territory, and the boundaries he defends will shift depending on where they build their nests. After all, having a nest with your eggs in it too close to a neighboring male is just not acceptable.
The females will often have two broods through the year. The first almost always has 5 eggs, white, with brown or purple-ish speckles. The nest itself is a loose cup of coarse grasses, lined with finer grasses. Often, it has a domed cover. This sounds very elaborate, but the nests are often so poorly constructed that they begin to deteriorate before the chicks have even fledged. I guess it is all about appearances. For this reason, females never reuse a nest, not even for a second brood in the same year.
Building this shabby nest takes three to 14 days. The female incubates eggs for about 14 days, and the young fledge in about 12. The whole process takes about 6 weeks. So, let's do some math. If they start nesting in mid- to late April then they are done by, say, the second week of June. Therein is one of the problems.
The fields that Meadowlarks prefer are farm fields - overgrown and current pastures, hay fields and the edges of golf courses, roadsides and airports. But people like to mow long before June. What to do? The birds or the hay? Fortunately, it is not that clear cut.
Meadowlarks also like tallgrass prairie and open lowland fields, wet ones slightly preferred. So there can be some compromises. A few tips for land-owners: if you have grassland birds and can wait to mow, do so; if you have to mow, do so from the middle of the field outward - this gives any fledglings a chances to escape your blades; if you can leave a buffer around the nests for a little while, do so; rotate crops and leave one field fallow with tall grasses or overgrown hay. Really, in most cases, it means less work for the people, so why not?
Other threats include pesticides, livestock trampling nests, predators, and high numbers of small mammals (which attract more predators, which are then more likely to stumble across nests). Some we can buffer, some we can't. Foxes always have and always will eat fledglings and eggs. Our cows could be contained elsewhere for a few weeks. In an effort to help the Eastern Meadowlark, which might depend on our help, it might be worth a bit of inconvenience and an overgrown yard.
As someone once said, the song of the Meadowlark is "synonymous with the grasslands of eastern North America." The simple thought process leads us to assume that if we aren't hearing the song, then we don't have the grasslands. With their songs, Meadowlarks tell us something. On the notes of that song, once called the "song of the American Farm," is carried the knowledge that a special habitat and a piece of our national identity still exist in a true form.
If I close my eyes as I listen, I can imagine a slightly different scene. The power lines aren't there, neither are the oil and gas wells. There is the soft huffing of draft horses and a seeder as they plant the plowed fields. A rooster crows from a neighboring farm. And in the hayfield in front of me, free of chemicals and machinery, the male Meadowlarks jump-flight and fluff up, waiting for the females.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. While we do not have Eastern Meadowlarks on our property, other properties on the road and nearby do. To learn more, or stop and see the spring migrants passing through, visit us online anytime at jamestownaudubon.org or stop in at the center Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or Sunday from 1 to 4:30 p.m. The trails are open dawn to dusk.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.