While scouting the Great Falls Portage along the Missouri River in 1805, Merriweather Lewis heard an unexpected vocal fanfare from an otherwise familiar bird from the East—a bird then called the “oldfield lark” and now known as the Eastern Meadowlark. Studying it closely, though, Lewis noted a differently shaped tail; a longer, more curved beak; and a vastly different song and call note. Only an amateur naturalist but a stunningly astute observer, Lewis had in fact identified several of the almost indistinguishable differences separating an Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) from a Western Meadowlark. When taxonomists finally declared the Western Meadowlark a distinct species in the mid-1800s, John James Audubon chose the species name neglecta to scold them for overlooking the species: Nearly 50 years had passed since Lewis’s first description. Even Audubon could be a tad snarky, it appears.
A chunky, brown-streaked bird with a long, flat-topped head, and a comically short tail, the Western Meadowlark resembles a sturdy, long-legged European Starling. However, its bright yellow throat, breast, and belly as well as the V-shaped black “necklace” make this bird a standout. In addition, when it flies, its body angles slightly upward, as if it were struggling to gain altitude and its white tail edgings flash clearly as it races away from you.
All of those distinctive characteristics make identifying a meadowlark rather easy. What is difficult is distinguishing a Western Meadowlark from an Eastern Meadowlark. Since the species look pretty much the same, the simplest point of departure arises with their very distinctive songs. The Eastern Meadowlark has a clear, whistled “spring-of-THEEE-year” (listen to the third clip here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Meadowlark/sounds); a Western Meadowlark, a jumble of loud, sweet whistles that is indescribable, unmistakable, and nearly synonymous with wide-open western spaces (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Meadowlark/sounds). Luckily for us Californians, though, we don’t face this challenge much, since Easterns rarely wander west of central Arizona.
A meadowlark feeds almost entirely on the ground, either along the surface or by jabbing its closed bill into the ground and spreading its beak apart to find insects lurking there. Waddling more than walking, the meadowlark stops at intervals, raises its head, looks around, then returns to feeding. Its diet consists mostly of grains, weed seeds, and insects (especially beetles, weevils, grasshoppers, and crickets).
Early April through late June marks the breeding season for meadowlarks in San Diego County. They nest in dense grasses on the ground, often crafting structures with grass “roofs” of sorts, making the nests especially hard to find. Grassland is the Western Meadowlark’s most typical habitat here; but coastal marshes, open sage scrub, and weedy areas can also host the species. Nestlings leave the nest quite young, as soon as 10–12 days after hatching and usually before they can fly: Their legs are strong but their flight feathers are not yet fully developed. As a result, they can run quickly for short distances, but they have to protect themselves from predators and other dangers primarily by hiding in dense vegetation, camouflaged by their cryptic brown, streaky coloration.
In San Diego County, Western Meadowlarks tend to be fairly widespread and common as a breeding species but they are noticeably more abundant as winter visitors, when they gather into sizable, noisy flocks, uttering their surprisingly distinctive “churk” call notes—a musical cross between a chirp and a burp. Although I hadn’t seen any in our area of northeast Oceanside, our Christmas Bird Count group found a large flock in mid-December on a low grassy hill in Rancho Guajome Adobe Park—alerted primarily by that distinctive chirp/burp call note. Indeed, during migration and winter, Western Meadowlarks spread into habitats such as open desert and sparsely vegetated disturbed areas unsuitable for their breeding.
Winter here finds Western Meadowlarks uttering only their call notes. But come spring, if you’re in appropriate habitat, you can spot and hear males singing from fence posts and tall stalks of vegetation, protecting their territories. But despite its name, the meadowlark is not really a lark. Instead, it falls in the Icterid family along with blackbirds and grackles. But once you hear that loud, lovely, liquid song wafting across a grassy field, you will understand why early settlers considered it the “lark of the meadow.”