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Western Meadowlark

Sturnella neglecta
Overview
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

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.

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

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).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 10

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.

Life History
Migration:

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.

Food:

A ground forager feeding on insects and seeds.

Nest:

An open-cup nest placed on the ground; the structure often has a partially or fully domed roof.

Western Meadowlark Western Meadowlark. Sturnella neglecta
© Sparky Stensaas
Figure 1.

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

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

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 Waseca 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.

Figure 2.

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

Print Map
Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the Western 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 (%)
Confirmed53 (1.1%)40 (1.7%)
Probable222 (4.7%)162 (6.9%)
Possible553 (11.6%)324 (13.9%)
Observed2 (0.0%)2 (0.1%)
Total830 (17.4%)528 (22.6%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the Western 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 Western 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.

Breeding Habitat

An obligate grassland species, the Western Meadowlark’s broad distribution is coupled with a wide tolerance of different grassland habitats. Common in native grasslands, it also can be found in pastures, small grain fields, hayfields, roadsides, weedy borders of croplands, and orchards (Figure 5). Data gathered during the MNBBA confirmed the species strong association with upland grasslands followed by croplands and wet meadows within 200 meters of point counts where the species was detected (Figure 6).

Croplands that have been retired and converted to perennial cover also provide suitable habitat (Davis and Lanyon 2008; Dechant et al. [1999] 2002). Indeed, in a study of breeding birds utilizing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands in western Minnesota, Hanowski (1995) found Western Meadowlarks on 53% of 30 study sites distributed across 12 western counties. In south-central Minnesota, researchers found a significant increase in the number of meadowlarks (Sturnella spp.) observed along roadside counts, with each incremental increase in the percentage of CRP land present (Haroldson et al. 2006). As native grasslands continue to decline, CRP lands provide critical nesting habitat to meadowlarks and a wide variety of other grassland-dependent birds.

Western Meadowlarks tolerate a wide range of vegetative densities but are rarely found where the vegetation is very sparse or very tall, instead preferring sites with moderate height and density of grasses and forbs, low to moderate litter cover, and little woody cover (Dechant et al. [1999] 2002; Davis and Lanyon 2008). A habitat suitability model examining meadowlarks’ response to woody cover found that quality habitat included open, grassland areas where woody vegetation is at least 360 m away. They did not, however, avoid edges created by roads (Lee 2013). Indeed, studies (Rotenberry and Knick 1995; Sutter et al. 2000) have found Western Meadowlarks to be even more abundant near roads, which was attributed to their use of roadside fences as song perches. Although open grasslands are preferred, scattered small trees or shrubs are acceptable as song perches, as are fence posts and telephone wires.

Evidence that the species displays area-sensitivity is mixed. A study in North Dakota that examined the area sensitivity of several grassland species demonstrated inconclusive results (Johnson and Igl 2001). Ribic and her colleagues, however, identified three studies that demonstrated a positive relationship between breeding densities of the Western Meadowlark and the size of the grassland tract and one study that demonstrated a negative relationship (Ribic et al. 2009). Meadowlark territories generally range in size from 2 to 13 ha, so tracts smaller than 5 ha are less likely to support the species (Helzer and Jelinski 1999). Sometimes, however, its territories are not confined to a single tract (Johnson and Igl 2001).

Several field studies also have identified the impacts of habitat edges on the species’ reproductive success. One study in Minnesota demonstrated lower rates of nest predation and nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds on large grassland tracts (130–486 ha) than on small tracts with more habitat edge per unit area (16–32 ha; Johnson and Temple 1990).

Of particular interest in Minnesota, where the ranges of the Eastern and Western Meadowlark overlap, are differences in habitat use by the two species. In general, the Western Meadowlark prefers larger, drier upland sites while the Eastern Meadowlark prefers smaller, more fragmented, mesic to wet sites (Eckert 2006; Davis and Lanyon 2008). Years ago, Longley (1955) provided examples of several sites in Minnesota where he found both species, each occupying slightly different habitats. At a site in Dodge County, for example, he found Eastern Meadowlarks occupying an 80-acre wet, grassy pasture that was surrounded by cultivated fields, heavily grazed pasture, and tame hay fields occupied by Western Meadowlarks. Further east, in the bluff lands of Winona and Wabasha Counties, he found Western Meadowlarks occupying fields on the flat, open hilltops while Eastern Meadowlarks occupied the more mesic valleys closer to the surrounding deciduous woodlands.

Figure 5.

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

Figure 6.

Habitat profile for the Western 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 North American population estimate of 90 million Western Meadowlarks (Rosenberg et al. 2016). Several years earlier, it was estimated that 0.5% of the North American population occurred in Minnesota (Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013). Applying that same estimate to the most recent figure for Minnesota generated an approximate statewide population of 450,000 birds. Estimates derived from MNBBA data were somewhat higher at 540,000 breeding adults (95% confidence interval of 470,000 – 639,000).

Breeding densities of Western Meadowlarks in Minnesota are relatively low compared with the northern and central plains states further west in the core of the species’ breeding range (Figure 1). Over the past 50 years, BBS routes in Minnesota reported an average of 56 birds per route per year compared with an average of 191 birds per route in the Prairie Pothole region and 520 per route in the Badlands (Sauer et al. 2017). Because these numbers are 50-year averages, they are much higher than the recent averages following years of a declining population trend. Indeed, in 2015 the average number of meadowlarks per route in Minnesota was only 4.6 birds (Pardieck et al. 2016). Aside from the BBS data, reported breeding densities in North Dakota between 1967 and 1993 ranged between less than 1.2 birds per 40 ha to as high as nearly 14.0 birds per 40 ha, depending on the year and the habitat (Igl et al. 2006). On CRP lands in Minnesota, breeding densities averaged 2.8 meadowlarks per 40 ha (Hanowski 1995).

Although the meadowlark appears abundant in many areas of its breeding range, it has experienced a significant decline of 1.29% per year since the BBS began (Sauer et al. 2017). Unlike many species that display different population trends in different regions of their range, the Western Meadowlark has declined in almost every state in which it occurs (Figure 7). Two exceptions are Nevada and Wyoming, where the populations are stable. Western Meadowlarks have experienced some of their steepest declines in Minnesota, where populations have decreased an average of 7.51% per year from 1967 to 2015 (Figure 8). This represents a cumulative loss of 98% in nearly 50 years.

Janssen (2000) brought attention to the species’ plight in Minnesota by sharing how the numbers of meadowlarks declined on a BBS route he ran on the southern outskirts of the Twin Cities from 1968 to 2000. His results included a peak of 119 meadowlarks observed at 46 of his 50 stops in 1972, compared to only 5 birds observed at 4 stops in 2000. The loss of grassland habitat due to the expanding growth of the Twin’s Cities outer suburbs was certainly a major factor. Nevertheless, when he examined 66 other BBS routes in the state where Western Meadowlarks had been reported, similar declines were noted statewide. Clearly urbanization was not the sole contributor to the decline in numbers but was coupled with the extensive loss, degradation, and fragmentation of grassland habitat due to more intensive agricultural practices. The changes were most pronounced in Minnesota after the early 1980s and are considered the major threats to the species throughout its breeding range (Davis and Lanyon 2008).

Figure 7.

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

Figure 8.

Breeding population trend for the Western Meadowlark in Minnesota from 1967-2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017).

Conservation

Still broadly distributed across the western United States, the meadowlark’s population decline is one of the principal factors that led to the assignment of a Continental Concern Score of 10/20 (Rosenberg et al. 2016). The species also has been designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need in Minnesota because of its declining population and the loss of suitable habitat (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2015).

Like so many grassland species, the future of the Western Meadowlark is dependent on federal farm policy and the opportunities to retire less‑productive lands, either permanently or for short-term periods. Although CRP acres provide suitable habitat for many grasslands species, the dense, high cover planted on many acres may not provide the most ideal habitat for Western Meadowlarks, who prefer more moderate cover densities and heights (Haroldson et al. 2006; Dechant et al. [1999] 2002; Davis and Lanyon 2008). Nevertheless, the birds do use CRP lands, so recent declines in enrollment do not bode well for the meadowlark.

At the local and regional scale, active management of native and restored grasslands is essential to ensure sites provide a variety of grassland mosaics to attract the full suite of grassland-dependent species, including meadowlarks. Aggressive interagency initiatives, such as the Minnesota Prairie Initiative (Minnesota Prairie Plan Working Group 2011), are important efforts to increase the number of grassland acres that are protected and restored throughout western Minnesota.

Unfortunately, in the long term, the impact of warming temperatures on the northern Great Plains is a concern because many species, including the Western Meadowlark, are considered vulnerable to drier conditions and extreme weather events. Assessed with a medium vulnerability to climate change, Western Meadowlarks may find that grasslands become too arid to support successful breeding populations (North American Bird Conservation Initiative 2010). More detailed assessments of these potential impacts are needed.

In the short term, focused conservation efforts in Minnesota and throughout the Great Plains are underway to reverse the current downfall that Western Meadowlarks are experiencing and return what Bent (1958) described as the “very spirit of the boundless prairie” to our grasslands.

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