Saturday, April 25, 2009

Western Meadowlark

While in billiard table flat Wood County recently, I got the opportunity to drop by and check out a cooperative territorial Western Meadowlark. Not long ago, I blogged about Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels and shared maps of that species and a few others. The squirrels and the others that I mentioned are examples of western prairie species that expanded eastward, probably during the hot, dry Xerothermic Period of approximately 5,000 years ago.

The Western Meadowlark belongs to that list of long ago prairie immigrants. This beautiful blackbird is quite rare in Ohio, with only a few reported each year. This is about as far east as they make it, too. Go west, and they become the common meadowlark once one reaches the Great Plains states.

Western Meadowlark gurgles his bubbly melody from a roadside wire amongst a sea of corn, beans, and wheat. Once, extensive prairies covered this part of Ohio, and that's the habitat this bird would have originally been associated with. Our original prairies were oceans of diversity, supporting incredibly rich plant life, scads of insects of all types, and all of the other animals that come with such ecological wonderlands.

In 1837, John Deere debuted his chisel plow, and all was quickly lost. Settlers soon discovered that once cut and furrowed, prairie turf grew some of the most robust crops in the world. Probably less than 1% of Ohio's original prairie remains, but prairie birds like this meadowlark still try and stake a claim where they can.

He sings! Although Western Meadowlarks are practically inseparable visually from our common Eastern Meadowlark for all practical purposes, their song is as different as night to day. Maybe it is because I am jaded, seeing as I hear Eastern Meadowlarks all of the time, but I find the Western's song richer and more pleasing to my ear.
It is amazing that early ornithologists ignored this one for so long. As early as 1805, Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame noted Western Meadowlarks on their journey west through the prairies, and knew they were something new. Others also recognized that this was a different beast from the Eastern Meadowlark, but it wasn't until 1844 that John James Audubon formally named it. In recognition of the bird's seemingly being snubbed by earlier explorers, Audubon named it Sturnella neglecta.

Sorry about the wind noise - this is the wide-open prairie, after all! - but in this vid the meadowlark issues some call notes. They, too, are vastly different than its eastern counterpart. Westerns often make a low Chuck call, and this curious whistled call. When heard at close range, as here, to me it sounds as if they are amplified through a cheap amplifier - the call is somewhat mechanical and surprisingly loud.
Fortunately, I think an increasing number of people are recognizing the folly of destroying so much of our former prairie. There have been some fairly large-scale restorations in recent years that have been very successful.


dAwN said...

Thanks for posting the videos of the song and chip notes...and good info.

Vickster said...

I came, I saw, I heard. It was beautiful.