Illustration by Thomas R. Schultz
The sweet, whistled song betrays the presence of this ground-loving blackbird. Polytypic. Length 9.5" (24 cm).
Identification Rotund, stocky medium-size icterid with a long bill, short tail, strong legs, and pointed tail feathers. Summer adult: cryptically patterned above; bright yellow below with bold black V on breast. Crown dark brown with white median crown stripe, dark postocular stripe, otherwise yellow supralores stand out on the paler face. Warm buff flanks crisply streaked brown. Back feathers edged white, but have complicated pattern of buff, and darker brown in centers. Fresh birds have a scaly look due to complete pale fringing of feathers. Coverts warm brown with dark bars that widen and meet adjacent dark bars at the feather shaft. Similarly, central tail feathers show confluent dark bars along shaft. Outer 3 tail feathers largely or entirely white. Bill gray with darker culmen and tip, legs dull pink, eyes dark. Winter adult: Pale tips cloud the black V on breast. Slightly more buffy yellow underparts; scaly upperparts. Juvenile: similar to winter adult, but paler yellow below and breast V streaked.
Geographic Variation Fifteen subspecies recognized, 4 in North America. The most distinct, and perhaps a good species, is lilianae, the “Lilian’s.” Found in the desert Southwest, it is smaller, has longer wings and legs, and is generally paler than typical easterns. It shows pale gray-brown plumage, like a western meadowlark, and separate and narrow bars on tail and greater coverts. It has extensive white on the tail, with the outer 3 rectrices entirely white, and the next in with substantial white. Although the calls are the same as for the eastern, the song of the “Lilian’s” is slightly more complex and lower in pitch, somewhat reminiscent of a western.
Similar Species The western meadowlark is very similar. The call of the eastern is diagnostic; the higher-pitched chatter is unlike the dry rattle of a western. The eastern lacks yellow on the malar and is generally darker than a western, showing a saturated brown overall color. The eastern shows largely white outer 3 tail feathers, white is even more extensive on the “Lilian’s” meadowlark. The “Lilian’s” shows the pale plumage and discrete, separate barring as in western, but it lacks streaking on the pale, thus showing a great deal of contrast with the dark eye line and crown, and whitish supercilium and cheeks.
Voice Call: a buzzy dzert; also a chatter given by both sexes, higher pitched than rattle of the western meadowlark. Flight note: a sweet whistled weeet. Song: three to 5 or more loud, sliding, descending whistles lasting approximately 1.5 seconds, tsweee-tsweee-tsweeeooo.
Status and Distribution Common. Breeding: grasslands and old field habitats; where sympatric with western, takes moister grassland and shrubby edge habitats. “Lilian’s” in desert grassland. Migration: diurnal migrant; northern birds move >620 miles, southern ones resident. Spring arrival dependent on snow melt, usually March–April, fall movements peak September–October. Winter: farmland, grasslands, and rangelands. Vagrant: casual to Newfoundland, North Dakota, Colorado, southwestern Arizona, and Manitoba.
Population General declines have been detected from the 1960s to the 1990s due to habitat loss.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
Identify your backyard visitors in a flash! Just answer four simple questions to search our database of 150 backyard birds common to Canada and the U.S.
How much do you know about the feathered visitors to your backyard? Put your avian IQ to the test with this quiz.