Wild Profile: Meet the Western meadowlark

A Western meadowlark perched on a fence post and singing By Matt Knoth/Shutterstock

A sure sign of spring is a Western meadowlark perched on a post and singing its lungs out. Well, not really, because bird lungs are small, rigid, and very different than mammal lungs. But you get it. As soon as the snow melts, male meadowlarks return to their spring and summer homes in the prairies and B.C. after having spent the winter in the southern U.S. and parts of Mexico.

When do the female birds return north?

Female meadowlarks don’t show up on the breeding scene for at least another two weeks. They have the same unmistakable plumage as their male counterparts: a bright yellow breast and throat with a black V-shaped marking—a little like a cravat—around the neck. But a male meadowlark starts singing as soon as he gets home. He needs time to establish a breeding territory before the ladies arrive.

What does the meadowlark sound like?

Each male bird has a playbook of up to 12 slightly different flute-like melodies. Sometimes, two males will try to out-sing each other by matching their tunes. Their voices are audible from about 400 metres away (not bad for a bird the same size as a robin). A female will pick the best singer, and the two hook up within minutes, then mate multiple times over the next couple of weeks as she builds a nest. When you know, you know, right?

Meadowlarks usually nest twice in one season—one male pairs with two females. Even though it’s the lady bird that builds the nursery, a simple, grass-lined bowl, sometimes covered by a waterproof “dome,” Dad helps with childcare. Once the brood of five or six hatches, he’ll periodically bring food and stick around to chase away intruders. Careful, though, if you intrude on a meadowlark nest. Back away! The birds aren’t bold enough to attempt to scare away a human interloper, and they might abandon the babies.

Featured Video