I’d been stalking this elusive bird for a couple of weeks. It insisted on keeping at least forty yards between us, and managed to scurry off into the underbrush whenever I’d just about got it framed and focused. This morning as I walked on a path on the north side of the park, I saw it on the ground far up ahead, and took some useless images. As I approached the spot where it had dashed into the brush, it rose and flew off into even denser vegetation to my left. I took a chance and tiptoed toward its approximate landing point, cross country, with scant hope of getting a picture.
But luck was with me. The bird rose and flew to the top of a shrubby tree, and there it stayed, turning this way and that, perfectly lit by the sun. Birds sometimes do this when they want their portraits taken, and that may have been the case here — or perhaps the bird just threw me this crumb to get rid of its pesky lens stalker.
This is only the second Western Meadowlark I’ve seen in the park. This one is a juvenile, with just a light wash of yellow on its throat. The grown-ups have a bright yellow breast with a distinct black V mark as their summer dress. We’re probably not going to see one of those because in the summer they go up north to Canada and similar environments for breeding. In the breeding season also is when they burst forth with their famously eloquent singing.
The Cornell bird lab website has these “cool facts” about the Western Meadowlark:
“The nest of the Western Meadowlark usually is partially covered by a grass roof. It may be completely open, however, or it may have a complete roof and an entrance tunnel several feet long.
Although the Western Meadowlark looks nearly identical to the Eastern Meadowlark, the two species hybridize only very rarely. Mixed pairs usually occur only at the edge of the range where few mates are available. Captive breeding experiments found that hybrid meadowlarks were fertile, but produced few eggs that hatched.
A male Western Meadowlark usually has two mates at the same time. The females do all the incubating and brooding, and most of the feeding of the young.
The explorer Meriwether Lewis was the first to point out the subtle differences between the birds that would eventually be known as the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, noting in June 1805 that the tail and bill shapes as well as the song of the Western Meadowlark differed from what was then known as the “oldfield lark” in the Eastern United States.
John James Audubon gave the Western Meadowlark its scientific name, Sturnella(starling-like) neglecta, claiming that most explorers and settlers who ventured west of the Mississippi after Lewis and Clark had overlooked this common bird.
In 1914, California grain growers initiated one of the earliest studies of the Western Meadowlark’s diet to determine whether the bird could be designated a pest species. Although they do eat grain, Western Meadowlarks also help limit numbers of crop-damaging insects.
Like other members of the blackbird, or icterid, family, meadowlarks use a feeding behavior called “gaping,” which relies on the unusually strong muscles that open their bill. They insert their bill into the soil, bark or other substrate, then force it open to create a hole. This gives meadowlarks access to insects and other food items that most birds can’t reach.
The Western Meadowlark is the state bird of six states: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Only the Northern Cardinal is a more popular civic symbol, edging out the meadowlark by one state.
The oldest recorded Western Meadowlark was at least 6 years, 6 months old when it was found in Colorado.”