Eastern Meadowlark

Sturnella magna

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Photo of an eastern meadowlark, side view, on snowy ground.
Meadowlarks are stout, stocky birds with short tails, rounded wings, and long, sharp bills.
Jim Rathert
Family

Icteridae (New World blackbirds, orioles, meadowlarks) in the order Passeriformes

Description

Upperpart feathers have dark brown centers and pale edges. The crown is dark with a light median stripe; eyebrow and moustachial streak are white; lores (space between eye and bill) yellow; eye line dark. Outer tail feathers are white or partially white; noticeable in flight but also when the bird flicks them while on the ground. The brown central tail feathers have dark centers and heavy barring. Underparts yellow; a black V marks the breast; sides and flanks have dark streaks. Under tail feathers are white. Song is often a pair of clear, descending whistles: tsee-you, tsee-yer. Call is a harsh dzzzzzert.

Similar species: The western meadowlark is a common permanent resident in northwest Missouri, rare and scattered in the rest of the state. Upperparts are paler, the feathers lacking the dark centers that eastern meadowlarks have. The song is very different: a beautiful, clear, descending whistle followed by a flutelike gurgling that fades near the end. Call is a dull chuck or chup.

Size

Length: 9½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of an eastern meadowlark against a blue sky, singing.
Eastern Meadowlark
Male eastern meadowlarks typically sing from prominent places.

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Photo of an eastern meadowlark perched on a fence post.
Eastern Meadowlark
Though male meadowlarks sing from prominent perches, meadowlarks actually spend most of their time on the ground.

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Photo of an eastern meadowlark perched among dried plant stalks.
Eastern Meadowlark
Meadowlarks are in the same family as blackbirds, grackles, and orioles. Most in this family have strong, sharp bills.

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Photo of an eastern meadowlark on snowy ground, showing underparts.
Eastern Meadowlark
On eastern meadowlarks, the dark marks on the flanks unite to form a streaked pattern.

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Photo of an eastern meadowlark singing on fence post, showing upperparts.
Eastern Meadowlark
Note the dark centers of the brown feathers on an eastern meadowlark’s back.
Habitat and conservation

Common permanent resident foraging on the ground in pastures, hay fields, prairies, airports, and crop fields. In winter meadowlarks are often seen near livestock enclosures, feeding on spilled grains.

Foods

The sharp, long bills of meadowlarks enable them to hunt ground-dwelling insects such as grubs, crickets, and grasshoppers. Like many other members of the blackbird family, they jab their strong, swordlike bills into the soil, then open their jaws, prying open the grass and soil, uncovering grubs and other “goodies.” In winter, they also eat seeds.

image of Eastern Meadowlark distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common permanent resident. There are several subspecies of the eastern meadowlark. Subspecies magna predominates in the northern half of our state, while argutula is in the south. Meanwhile, the eastern and western species rarely interbreed — their calls are very different, and where their ranges overlap they rarely occupy the same territory.

Life cycle

Meadowlarks are ground nesters. The female builds a cup-shaped nest of grasses, plant stalks, and similar materials, usually in some kind of depression on the ground, often hidden under some low plants. Sometimes the nests are covered with a roof or have an arched entrance. From 2 to 7 eggs are laid, and the young hatch naked and helpless. They can leave the nest 10 to 12 days after hatching. Don’t disturb nesting meadowlarks. Females often abandon their eggs if scared off the nest.

Human connections

The eastern meadowlark’s slurring, clear songs sweeten summer days on farms, in prairies, and other open, grassy areas. They often sing from fence posts or telephone lines, where we can easily admire them. Meadowlarks devour many insects that humans find troublesome.

Ecosystem connections

Meadowlarks are in the same family (Icteridae) as blackbirds, grackles, orioles, and bobolinks. Perhaps the best way to see the resemblance is in their strong, sharp bills. Many icterids pry open grasses and soil for insects the way meadowlarks do.