Illustration by Thomas R. Schultz
The song of the western meadowlark is emblematic of the West. Polytypic. Length 9.5" (24 cm).
Identification Rotund, stocky, medium-size blackbird with a long bill, short tail, strong legs, and pointed tail feathers. Summer adult: cryptically patterned above; bright yellow below with a bold black V on breast. Crown brown with white median crown stripe, pale face accented by bold dark postocular stripe, yellow supralores. Yellow on throat invades the malar area. Gray-buff flanks crisply streaked brown, vent and undertail coverts whitish, streaked vent. Back feathers edged white, but have complicated pattern of buff, and darker brown in centers. Fresh birds appear scaly due to complete pale fringing of feathers, but worn individuals look pale streaked as pale tip wears. Coverts pale brown with separate thin dark bars that remain separate to center of shaft. Similarly, central tail feathers are pale brown with discrete narrow dark brown bars. White on outer 3 tail feathers, a small brown strip remains on outer corner of outer 2 rectrices, but next one in (R4) largely dark with only a white wedge on inner vane. Bill gray with darker culmen and tip, legs dull pink, eyes dark. Winter adult: pale tips cloud black V on breast. Slightly more buffy yellow underparts; more scaly looking upperparts. Juvenile: similar to winter adult, but duller face pattern, paler yellow below, and breast streaked in a V, not solid.
Geographic Variation Subspecies confluenta of the Pacific Northwest is darker, it and shows dark bars on tail feathers and coverts that widen at center of each feather and join up with adjacent dark bars, like the eastern meadowlark.
Similar Species The eastern meadowlark is extremely similar and sometimes not separable. The southwestern form of eastern meadowlark (known as the “Lilian’s”) is even more similar to the western than the more widespread eastern forms due to its pale plumage. To separate these look-alikes one needs to concentrate on the voice, extent of yellow of throat, plumage patterns, and tail pattern. Some vocalizations are diagnostic, such as the blackbird-like call of the western. The 2-parted song is lower in frequency and lacks the ascending whistles of the eastern (including the “Lilian’s”) song; however, the song is learned, and in rare cases the meadowlarks can learn each other’s songs—this is not the case for the call. The western shows more yellow on the throat; it extends to the malar area, and this can be surprisingly easy to see in a scope view. The western is generally paler than the eastern, but similar to the “Lilian’s,” showing a pale gray-brown overall color, rather than the warmer, more saturated brown of the eastern. The western shows pale gray-buff flanks, like the “Lilian’s,” and the eastern has darker, midtone buff flanks with stronger streaks. The wing coverts show up as a grayish brown panel with narrow dark bars on the western, while on the eastern they are warm brown to cinnamon brown, with wider dark bars. The western shows largely white outer 2 tail feathers, while the eastern shows largely white outer 3 tail feathers.
Voice Call: a low chupp or chuck. Females give a dry rattle, males a slower rolling note. Flight note: a sweet whistled weeet. Song: males have melodious and flute-like song lasting approximately 1.5 seconds. Two phrases, starting with several clear whistles, and a terminal phrase which is more gurgled, bubbling and complex, tuuu-weet-tooo-twleedlooo.
Status and Distribution Common. Breeding: dry grasslands, agricultural areas. Migration: diurnal migrant; northern populations migratory, southern ones resident. Eastern breeders are also easternmost in winter. Spring arrival dependent on snow melt, usually March–April, fall movements peak September–October. Winter: dry grassy sites. Vagrant: casual in Alaska, Northwest Territories, and Hudson and James Bays. Casual to East Coast from Nova Scotia to Georgia.
Population Slowly declining in last 20 years.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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