- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
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.
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).
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.
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.
A ground forager feeding on insects and seeds.
An open-cup nest placed on the ground; structure often has a partial or full roof and a tunnel entrance.
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.