July 9th , 2012 8:40 am Leave a comment

Feathered Friends: Eastern Meadowlark common bird in the region’s grassland habitats

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I have been seeing Eastern Meadowlarks on a regular basis this spring and summer in the fields around the Bell Cemetery in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County. On one recent visit, I observed four Eastern Meadowlarks in one of the fields that had not yet been mowed for hay. The meadowlarks are quintessential birds of farmlands, closely associated with open countryside and wide fields. A drive along roads in such habitat is apt to reward you with views of the Eastern Meadowlark perched on wires or fence posts.

Photo by Metro Creative Connection
An Eastern Meadowlark sings from an elevated location. This bird is found in open grassland habitats, such as fields and pastures.

Alterations to the landscape, including housing subdivisions where once there were pastures or fields, haven’t completely driven off the Eastern Meadowlark. These birds seem to be able to adapt to such habitats, and can be found in such artificial habitats as golf courses and airports as well as prairies and fields. The Eastern Meadowlark is a robin-sized bird. Seen from the back, this is a dull bird that blends into its surroundings. The bird’s striking color pattern is its yellow breast with the large black “V” mark across it. The Eastern Meadowlark also has white and brown head stripes.

Photo courtesy of Judy Beckman
A couple of American Goldfinches join the Red Crossbills at feeders belonging to Judy and Bill Beckman of Spivey Mountain in Unicoi County.

The Eastern Meadowlark’s scientific name Sturnella magna is Latin for “large little starling,” which is another of those confusing names many a bird must bear. Despite the “lark” component of its name, a meadowlark is not a true lark. North America is home to only one true lark — the widespread Horned lark — although many species of larks are native to Europe, Africa, Asia and India. The most famous is probably the Skylark, an accomplished and acclaimed singer. The fact that meadowlarks are also decent singers and grassland birds probably contributed to the name “meadowlark.”

Strangely enough, the Eastern Meadowlark has a doppelganger halfway around the world in Africa. The Yellow-throated Longclaw looks almost identical to North America’s Eastern Meadowlark. The similar appearance of these unrelated birds apparently evolved completely by coincidence. Although a well-known grassland bird in much of the eastern United States, the Eastern Meadowlark also ranges into Central and South America. There is also a Western Meadowlark, an almost identical bird to its eastern counterpart. Although they look alike, these two related birds have completely different songs, which is one of the most reliable means of telling them apart in the regions where their ranges overlap.

While the Eastern Meadowlark is certainly an admired bird, the Western Meadowlark has some official distinction due to the fact that six states have named it their state bird. According to the book The Folklore of Birds by Laura Martin, the states of Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming have all made the Western Meadowlark their official bird.

The range of the Western Meadowlark overlaps with that of the Eastern Meadowlark in parts of central North America. It’s difficult to tell the two species apart based on visual clues. Their different vocalization are the surest means of distinguishing them.

I saw Western Meadowlarks in 2003 and 2006 during trips to Salt Lake City in Utah. I found them particularly common in the agricultural regions as well as on Antelope Island State Park.

Only once, back in the late 1990s, have I seen an Eastern Meadowlark at home. That stray sighting has not been repeated, although there are small fields around my home. Good locations for looking for Eastern Meadowlarks in Carter County include the Elizabethton Municipal Airport as well as the large agricultural fields in the Siam community along the Watauga River.

Also according to The Folklore of Birds, the Eastern Meadowlark is a respected bird in Cherokee Indian culture. The Cherokee know the bird as “nakwisi,” which means “star.” This reference is due to the shape of the meadowlark’s tail as it spreads as the bird takes flight.

The Eastern Meadowlark is a member of the blackbird family, which includes such species as Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird and Baltimore Oriole.

These birds nest on the ground in tall grass. Because of this nesting location, nests are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators as well as to early season mowing of fields for hay. They feed largely on insects, but will also eat berries and seeds.The world’s meadowlarks (there are seven species found in North and South America) belong to the genus Sturnella in the New World family Icteridae, which includes such birds as blackbirds, orioles, grackles and cowbirds.

The seven New World meadowlarks are Red-breasted Blackbird, White-browed Blackbird, Peruvian Meadowlark, Pampas Meadowlark, Long-tailed Meadowlark, Eastern Meadowlark, Western Meadowlark and Lilian’s Meadowlark. In all seven species, the male’s plumage features a black or brown back and extensively red or yellow underparts. The sexes are identical in North America’s two species, the Eastern Meadowlark and Western Meadowlark.

Two species are known as blackbirds rather than meadowlarks, but their close relations are their fellow meadowlarks, not blackbirds such as Red-winged Blackbird and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

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As of June 29, Judy Beckman was still hosting some Red Crossbills at her home on Spivey Mountain in Unicoi County.

“Lately, we have only seen one female,” she noted in an email.

She reported that she has been able to get closer to them, which resulted in some remarkable photos that she shared of her visitors.

According to Rick Knight’s book, The Birds of Northeast Tennessee,” these nomadic birds may be encountered at any time of the year, usually in the mountains. They are fond of conifers, particularly spruce. Overall, the Red Crossbill is considered uncommon in the region.

Crossbills are also known from Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County as well as Roan Mountain in Carter County.

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To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, call me at 297-9077 or email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I am on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

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