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Eastern Meadowlark

Sturnella magna
Overview
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

A regular breeding species and migrant; occasional during the winter months but not present every year. The Eastern Meadowlark was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas.

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

As its name implies, the Eastern Meadowlark has a more easterly breeding distribution then the Western Meadowlark, occurring throughout the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, extending across the southwestern United States and into Central America and northern South America. The highest densities are found in the Central Mixed Grass Prairie and the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie regions of the central U.S. (Figure 1).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 11

Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 11/20 by Partners in Flight and added to their 2016 list of Common Species in Steep Decline; designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and identified as a Target Conservation Species by Audubon Minnesota.

Life History
Migration:

A short- to medium-distance migrant in Minnesota that winters in the southern United States and Mexico; populations in the central and southern United States and Mexico are year-round residents.

Food:

A ground forager feeding on insects and seeds.

Nest:

An open-cup nest placed on the ground; structure often has a partial or full roof and a tunnel entrance.

Eastern Meadowlark Eastern Meadowlark. Sturnella magna
© Gualberto Becerra
Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the Eastern Meadowlark in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey from 2011 to 2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

The Eastern Meadowlark’s distribution in Minnesota is decidedly eastern. At the turn of the century, Roberts (1932) described the species as “an abundant summer resident in the eastern part of the state.” In addition to this broad description, the meadowlark is one of the few species for which he also provided a rather precise description of its statewide distribution. Noting that it was slowly expanding westward, he wrote that it only occurred regularly from Mower County northwest to Le Sueur, then east to western Hennepin County and north through Isanti County. From there it extended as far north as Duluth and Two Harbors. At the time of his writing, Eastern Meadowlarks also began to appear in west-central St. Louis County along the Iron Range. Confirmed nesting records (nests with eggs) were only available from Hennepin County; inferred nesting records (nests only) were available from Goodhue County.

Few other accounts of the species’ distribution were available until Green and Janssen (1975) prepared their update more than forty years later. By then it appeared the species’ range had continued to expand westward, stretching as far as Lake of the Woods County in the north, to Otter Tail County in west-central Minnesota, and to Blue Earth and Faribault Counties in the south. Indeed, since the 1960s, the species’ range was expanding westward outside of Minnesota as well, including in both Kansas and central Texas (Jaster et al. 2012). By 1987 there were few changes in the meadowlark’s Minnesota distribution when Janssen provided an updated account (Janssen 1987). He did, however, identify five counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970: Aitkin, Anoka, Benton, Dakota, and St. Louis. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) would later add Le Sueur, Wabasha, and Winona Counties to the list.

Field biologists with the Minnesota Biological Survey have recorded a total of 256 breeding season locations for the Eastern Meadowlark. With the exception of a handful of records in southwestern Minnesota, the species’ range had changed very little since Green and Janssen’s account in the mid-1970s (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).

During the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA), participants tallied 730 Eastern Meadowlark records in 10.3% (490/4,749) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 13.8% (323/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was gathered in 37 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in 68 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, and breeding evidence was documented in 28 counties; two blocks with confirmed nesting evidence straddled both Scott and Carver Counties.  All but 5 of the counties with confirmed breeding evidence were new additions to the list provided by Hertzel and Janssen (1998). Overall, during the course of the atlas, Eastern Meadowlarks were observed in nearly half as many blocks (490) as Western Meadowlarks (830).

Data gathered during the atlas were used to develop a model to predict the probability of encountering Eastern Meadowlarks statewide (Figure 4). The result predicts that the core of the species’ breeding distribution is in southeastern Minnesota with scattered pockets of moderate abundance in central and east-central regions of the state as far north as southern St. Louis County and at sites even further  to the north and west. Elsewhere the species is present in only low breeding densities in southern and western Minnesota and rare to absent in the northern landscape of the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province.

From 1932, when Roberts first delineated the meadowlark’s distribution as confined largely to the far eastern counties of the state, to 1987, when Janssen delineated its distribution as occurring throughout the eastern half of the state, the species’ range expanded nearly 150 miles west (Figure 5). South of the Minnesota River, however, its westward expansion was minimal. More than twenty-five years later, when the MNBBA was completed, little significant movement westward had occurred. Although Eastern Meadowlarks are not abundant anywhere west of the range delineated by Janssen in 1987, the atlas documented scattered reports throughout the far western counties, from Pipestone in the southwest to Kittson in the northwest. All the counties where the MNBBA documented nesting, however, were within the species’ primary breeding range delineated by Janssen in 1987. Other than the western expansion noted earlier in Kansas and central Texas (Jaster et al. 2012), there have been few changes in the Eastern Meadowlark’s distribution.

As discussed in the Western Meadowlark’s account, Minnesota is clearly a region where the distribution of the Western and Eastern Meadowlarks overlap considerably. Given that they are nearly identical in appearance, one must rely on their songs and call notes to correctly distinguish the two species from one another. Although Eckert (2006) provided a helpful account of features other than vocalizations that may be used for field identification, the best way is to hear the birds. Eckert suggested a general rule of thumb that any bird seen west of a north-south line from the city of Warroad in Roseau County south to the city of Fairmount in Martin County was a Western Meadowlark. East of this line, however, both species could be seen. He clarified this further several years later when he wrote (Eckert 2010): “That line from Warroad to Fairmont should not be interpreted as a straight and impermeable barrier . . There are places in Clearwater and eastern Becker counties, along the Minnesota River west to the Redwood Falls areas, near Windom, and perhaps elsewhere where there have been recent, credible sightings – and listenings – of Easterns in summer.”  Indeed during the MNBBA, several records were found along the far western tier of counties, from Kittson in the north, south to Pipestone in the southwest. During the atlas, there was only one county where neither species was present: Cook County in the far northeast.

Despite their wide zone of overlap, Western and Eastern Meadowlarks rarely hybridize. Studies that have interbred the birds in captivity demonstrate a high rate of sterility among the young (Jaster et al. 2012).

*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.

Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the Eastern Meadowlark in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

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Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the Eastern Meadowlark in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed37 (0.8%)30 (1.3%)
Probable155 (3.3%)112 (4.8%)
Possible290 (6.1%)175 (7.5%)
Observed8 (0.2%)6 (0.3%)
Total490 (10.3%)323 (13.8%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the Eastern Meadowlark observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Figure 4.

Predicted breeding distribution (pairs per 40 hectares) of the Eastern Meadowlark in Minnesota based on habitat, landscape context, and climate data gathered during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013) using the General Linear Modeling method with an adjustment for detectability.

Figure 5.

Current MNBBA distribution of the Eastern Meadowlark compared to its distribution as delineated by Roberts in 1932 (Black line) and Janssen in 1987 (Red Line).

Breeding Habitat

Although the Eastern Meadowlark was originally dependent on native prairies, natural grassland openings, and oak savannas scattered throughout the Eastern Deciduous Biome, it has adapted to a wide range of grass-dominated habitats. Today it can be found in habitats as diverse as weedy pastures, hayfields, overgrown fields, and shrub carr wetlands (Figure 6), as well as golf courses, airports, and reclaimed surface mines (Jaster et al. 2012; Hull [2000] 2002; Faanes 1981). Planted cover, including lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, also provide suitable habitat. Occasionally the Eastern Meadowlark can be found breeding in croplands, where it prefers non-till fields over conventionally managed fields that are tilled prior to planting (Hull [2000] 2002). Data gathered during the MNBBA confirm the species’ strong association with upland grassland habitats (Figure 7).

At the site level, Eastern Meadowlarks are strongly associated with tracts that provide good grass cover and a rich litter layer. Open tracts with minimal shrubby growth are important. A Habitat Suitability Index model prepared for the species delineated optimal habitat as comprising dense grass cover of moderate height (12.5 to 35 cm), low shrub cover (<5%), low forb cover, and sufficient perches for singing males. Shrubby growth that exceeded 35% cover was considered unsuitable. The optimal amount of herbaceous cover (grasses and forbs) was >90%; herbaceous cover less than 20% provided inadequate nesting cover (Schroeder and Sousa 1982). Suitable song perches included fence posts, telephone wires, shrubs, elevated mounds of dirt, and farm machinery (Gross 1958).

Based on a review of the literature, Ribic and her colleagues (2009) determined the Eastern Meadowlark demonstrated a sensitivity to the size of grassland habitats, where a higher incidence of occurrence and greater breeding densities were observed on larger tracts. Herkert (1994) estimated the minimum area required was 5 ha. Other studies, however, have suggested that the species’ area sensitivity may vary regionally (Hull [2000] 2002).

Because both the Western and Eastern Meadowlarks tolerate a wide diversity of grassland habitats, their selection of habitats in areas where their ranges overlap is of particular interest. Most studies report that Western Meadowlarks demonstrate a stronger preference for larger, drier upland sites while the Eastern Meadowlark is more likely to be found in mesic to wet, low-lying sites that are smaller in size and embedded in more fragmented landscapes (Eckert 2006; Davis and Lanyon 2008; Jaster et al. 2012). Longley (1955) provided examples of several sites in Minnesota where both species were found in close proximity but occupying slightly different habitats. In Dodge County, for example, Eastern Meadowlarks occupied wet, grassy pastures surrounded by cultivated fields, while heavily grazed pasture and hay fields were occupied by Western Meadowlarks. In the dissected river valleys of Winona and Wabasha Counties, Longley found Western Meadowlarks occupying fields on the flat, open hilltops while Eastern Meadowlarks occupied the more mesic valleys of the floodplain.

Figure 6.

Typical breeding habitat of the Eastern Meadowlark in Minnesota (© Lee A. Pfannmuller).

Figure 7.

Habitat profile for the Eastern Meadowlark based on habitats within 200 m of point counts where the species was present during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Population Abundance

Data collected by the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) have been used to model population abundance, generating a population estimate of 24 million birds just in the United States and Canada (Rosenberg et al. 2016). Several years earlier, biologists estimated that Minnesota supported 0.3% of the North American population (Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013). The application of this estimate to current population estimates yields a statewide population of approximately 77,000 birds. The estimate derived using MNBBA data is considerably higher at 294,000 breeding individuals (95% confidence interval of 227,000 to 411,000).

Occurring on the northwest periphery of its breeding range in Minnesota, Eastern Meadowlarks are less common than in the core of their breeding range further south in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma (Figure 1). Indeed, the average number of birds observed on federal BBS routes in Minnesota each year is only 1 compared to 51 in Kansas, 80 in Missouri, and 101 in Oklahoma (Sauer et al. 2017). Few published data are available on site level breeding densities in different localities across the species’ breeding range.

Despite its relative abundance, the Eastern Meadowlark has experienced a significant population decline since the BBS began in 1966, averaging 3.28% per year for a cumulative loss of nearly 81% (Sauer et al. 2017). With few exceptions, the species has experienced a statistically significant decline in every single state and Canadian province (Figure 8). Interestingly, the exceptions are on the northern and western periphery of the species’ range and include Arizona, North Dakota, Iowa, and southern Minnesota. In Minnesota the species’ relatively low abundance results in an imprecise population trend. Nevertheless, most of its breeding range in the state lies within the Prairie Hardwood Transition region, where populations have demonstrated a significant decline of 3.58% per year since 1966, slightly higher than the national trend (Figure 9).

Like many grassland species, the decline of the Eastern Meadowlark is largely attributed to habitat loss and degradation. Indeed, one of the primary contributors is believed to be the loss of family farms, a former mainstay of the agricultural landscape. The small farms have been replaced by more intensive, large-scale agricultural operations. Habitat loss due to increased urban development is also a major factor. It is less clear why populations are stable or slightly increasing in some localities (Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2016).

Figure 8.

Eastern Meadowlark Breeding Bird Survey Trend Map, 1966-2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Figure 9.

Breeding population trend for the Eastern Meadowlark in the Prairie Hardwood Transition Region of North America from 1966-2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017).

Conservation

In light of its widespread population decline, the Eastern Meadowlark has been assigned a Continental Concern Score of 11/20 (Rosenberg et al. 2016). The species’ plight also has been highlighted by many state and federal resource agencies and conservation organizations, including the National Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners in Flight, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, and the state of Minnesota, where it has been designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2015). Audubon Minnesota designated it a Target Conservation Species and prepared a statewide conservation plan (Pfannmuller 2014).

At the regional level, the Upper Mississippi River/Great Lakes Joint Venture has identified the meadowlark as a focal species. It has established a regional goal to double the species’ population from 1.89 million to 3.78 million over a 15-year period. To accomplish this goal, habitat protection and restoration objectives were delineated for each state in the region. The specific objective in Minnesota is to protect and restore a total of 838 km2 of grassland habitat (Potter et al. 2007).

In Minnesota, large-scale, collaborative efforts are underway to protect and restore wetlands and grasslands throughout the western landscape. Because meadowlarks utilize Conservation Reserve Program lands, federal farm policies that provide incentives to farmers for retiring less-productive farmlands are a critical component of these efforts. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 95% of Eastern Meadowlarks in the United States occur on private lands (North American Bird Conservation Initiative 2011).

At the site level, specific management guidelines focus on protecting large grassland tracts that provide a diversity of grasses and forbs and minimum shrub cover. Periodic disturbances created by burning, mowing, and light to moderate grazing are important to maintaining these grassland habitats.

Although the species’ vulnerability to warming temperatures is considered relatively low (North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee 2010), its steep population decline requires close monitoring. Focused conservation efforts are crucial if the Eastern Meadowlark is to remain “the outstanding and most characteristic bird of the American farm” (Bent 1958).

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  • Pfannmuller, Lee A. 2014. Eastern Meadowlark Minnesota Conservation Plan. Blueprint for Minnesota Bird Conservation. Audubon Minnesota. http://mn.audubon.org/sites/g/files/amh601/f/eastern_meadowlark_conservation_plan_10-31-2014_0.pdf

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