- 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 Western Meadowlark was a common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas.
A decidedly western species, the Western Meadowlark’s breeding range extends across the western two-thirds of the United States and southern Canada, ranging as far east as southern Ontario and Michigan. Highest breeding densities occur in the Prairie Potholes, Badlands, and Central Mixed Grass Prairie regions (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 10/20 by Partners in Flight; designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Populations in southern Canada and the northern United States are short-distance migrants that winter in the southwestern and south-central United States and northern Mexico; further south, populations are year-round residents.
A ground forager feeding on insects and seeds.
An open-cup nest placed on the ground; the structure often has a partially or fully domed roof.
The Western Meadowlark has long been recognized as a common breeding species in Minnesota with a nearly statewide distribution. Roberts (1932) described it as present in all but the far northeastern corner of the state. Not only was it abundant throughout the western grasslands, but its breeding range extended east “into the open woodlands quite to the Wisconsin line, avoiding only the heavier forests.” Confirmed nesting records (nests with eggs or young unable to fly) were available from 8 counties stretching from Lyon and Pipestone in the southwest, north to Grant and Otter Tail in west-central Minnesota, and further north to Polk County in the far northwest. To the east, confirmed nesting reports were available from Faribault and Martin Counties in the south, north to Morrison County. Inferred nesting reports (nest building) were available from Waseca and Mc Leod Counties.
Little had changed when Green and Janssen provided an updated account of the species status in 1975. They again described it as a breeding resident throughout all but the very northeastern counties of Lake and Cook. It had been reported as far north as St. Louis County and was even locally abundant in some areas of north-central and northeastern Minnesota. Several years later, Janssen (1987) described it as rare to absent in Lake and Cook Counties and casual to rare in the north-central region of the state. He delineated 19 counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970, including several counties in the east-central region (Anoka, Carver, Hennepin, Le Sueur, and Sherburne) and two counties in southeastern Minnesota (Olmsted and Wabasha). Hertzel and Janssen (1998) would later add three more counties to the list.
Beginning in the late 1980s, field biologists with the Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) documented a total of 931 breeding season locations for Western Meadowlarks. Most abundant in the Prairie Parklands and Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Provinces, scattered reports have been documented as far east as central St. Louis County in the northeast and southern Houston County in the southeast (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016a).
During the MNBBA, participants tallied a total of 1,385 Western Meadowlark records from 17.4% (830/4,774) of the surveyed atlas blocks and 22.6% (528/2,337) of the priority blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). Breeding evidence was gathered in 53 blocks. The birds were observed in 76 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and were confirmed breeding in a total of 25 counties stretching as far east as Dakota and Goodhue, including 15 counties that are additions to the list compiled by Hertzel and Janssen (1998): Benton, Big Stone, Dakota, Goodhue, Kittson, Lyon, Marshall, Nobles, Pipestone, Polk, Pope, Roseau, Swift, Watonwan, and Yellow Medicine. Dakota County was included because of a block that straddled both Dakota and Goodhue Counties.
Identification of this species, especially by sight alone, is difficult because it is nearly identical to the Eastern Meadowlark. Although their songs and call notes are nearly always distinguishable, features of their plumage and morphology are challenging if not impossible to separate from one another. This is a particular challenge in Minnesota, where the species’ ranges overlap. Eckert (2006) provided a helpful and detailed account of features other than vocalizations that can be used to aid in distinguishing the two from one another in the field, including habitat preferences and behavioral characteristics. Nevertheless, without hearing call notes or songs, field identification can be quite difficult. Eckert’s general rule of thumb was that any meadowlark observed 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, both species could be present. He further clarified this line of demarcation several years later when he stated that there were clearly areas west of the line where Eastern Meadowlarks could be found (Eckert 2010). Such exceptions were demonstrated by MBS (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016b) and MNBBA data. Overall, it is best for the field observer not to make any assumptions about the presence or absence of either species anywhere in Minnesota. Western Meadowlarks, however, are nearly twice as abundant as Eastern Meadowlarks. During the atlas, Western Meadowlarks were observed in 830 blocks while Eastern Meadowlarks were only observed in 490 blocks.
Atlas data were used to generate a model to predict the probability of encountering the Western Meadowlark statewide (Figure 4). The results show that the species is encountered in moderate breeding densities along the western tier of counties from Rock and Nobles in the far southwest to Kittson and Roseau in the far northwest. Scattered pockets of higher breeding densities can be found throughout this region. Breeding densities rapidly decline in east-central and south-central regions of the state and the Western Meadowlark is predicted to be rare to absent throughout much of eastern Minnesota.
Overall, the Western Meadowlark’s distribution has changed little since Roberts first described it as having a nearly statewide distribution. Elsewhere in its range, the species experienced a significant expansion in the northeastern United States in the 1900s. Formerly occurring east only as far as Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois, it is now found as far east as western New York and southern Ontario (Davis and Lanyon 2008).
*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.