North America is home to many beautiful species of songbirds, including the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) – a medium sized, short-tailed passerine with a bright yellow belly and a distinctive black V on its chest. Its upper parts are light brown with black spotting and it has two bright yellow patches above either eye. Despite its name, it’s not a lark, but a member of the blackbird family.
Closely related is the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two by sight as they look nearly identical. The Western Meadowlark is a bit paler, and the yellow colouring on its throat expands to its cheeks. The two species have different voices and geographical ranges which are important for proper identification. There is a small area of range overlap in east-central North America, but very little hybridization occurs between the two species. Interestingly, where the two species overlap, they refuse to share territory, and are likely to fight each other.
The Eastern Meadowlark’s breeding range is in southern parts of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Its year-round range includes the east half of the United States and parts of Central America. The summer breeding range for the Western Meadowlark is in the southern halves of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and in the Great Lakes region. It has year-round habitat in central and western United States, and winters in parts of the southern United States and Mexico. The ranges of the two species have some overlap but are generally divided into east and west.
Both of these songbirds nest in open grassland and prairie habitats. They may also nest in agricultural fields and other open grassy areas, and generally avoids wooded areas. Nests are built on the ground and both species are ground foragers, hunting for their food on foot. The Eastern Meadowlark feeds primarily on insects but will also eat grain, seeds, and fruit in the winter. The Western Meadowlark eats grain and weed seeds along with insects.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) conducted an assessment on the Eastern Meadowlark in 2011 and listed the species as Threatened primarily due to habitat alteration and loss. Land conversion, overgrazing, pesticides, and urbanization have affected Eastern Meadowlark habitat and breeding grounds. Populations have been diminishing over the last 50 years at an annual rate of about 3%.. The Western Meadowlark has not had an assessment conducted and has a slightly lower rate of decline than its eastern relative. However, because it faces many of the same threats and because the two birds closely resemble one another, it is feasible to simultaneously address issues concerning both species.
The Eastern and Western Meadowlarks are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act so their nests, eggs, and shelters may not be disturbed or destroyed. Preserving breeding ranges and minimizing impacts on nesting grounds will help prevent an irreversible decline in bird populations. Characteristics such as ground nesting and foraging in open grasslands make the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks targets for domestic and feral cats roaming in rural areas.
– Kate Herauf