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Western Meadowlark
Sturnella neglecta
– Family
Authors: Lanyon, Wesley E.
Revisors: Davis, Stephen K.

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Adult Western Meadowlark, Kansas, April.
Figure 1. Distribution of the Western Meadowlark.

The Western Meadowlark is one of our most abundant and widely distributed grassland birds. It inhabits open country from natural and planted grasslands of the Northern Great Plains to tidal flats along the Pacific Ocean, and from sea level to mountain meadows at 3700 meters. Its frequent roadside occurrence, colorful plumage, and melodious song make it one of our most popular birds; no fewer than six states have it as their state bird.

Although the Western Meadowlark was known to explorers Lewis and Clark, John James Audubon was impressed with the degree to which it had subsequently been overlooked and gave the bird its Latin name (Sturnella neglecta). His report (1844) of a meadowlark west of the Mississippi similar in appearance but differing in voice from the familiar Eastern Meadowlark (S. magna) triggered a debate over the status of these birds that lasted for another century. Studies of their morphology, ecology, and behavior in regions of sympatry from Texas to Ontario revealed little or no evidence of interbreeding and one of the first cases of interspecific territoriality among North American birds. Subsequent research with captive birds demonstrated a high incidence of hybrid sterility.

Although a gifted songster, the Western Meadowlark is not a lark (Family Alaudidae) but related instead to New World blackbirds and troupials (Family Emberizidae, subfamily Icterinae). It is easily recognized as a meadowlark by its white tail margins and yellow breast with V-shaped black bib, but separation from the Eastern Meadowlark in the field is difficult except by species-specific songs and calls.

Key studies of Western Meadowlarks have been conducted by Bryant (1914) on the diet of the species in California. Interestingly the study arose in response to pressure by grain-growers to have the species designated a “pest” due to its impact on crops. At the same time, its insectivorous habit was also well known and it was recognized that the species could play a role in controlling harmful invertebrates. Lanyon conducted key studies of natural history (Lanyon 1953, 1957), distribution (1956a, 1962), and hybridization (1966, 1979). Further work by Rowher (1972a, b, 1973) advanced our knowledge on the distribution and hybridization of Eastern and Western Meadowlarks in the Great Plains. Falls and colleagues have revealed many aspects of the structure and function of the meadowlark’s beautiful and unique song (Falls and Krebs 1975, Falls and d’ Agincourt 1981, 1982, Falls 1985, and Falls et al. 1988, Horn and Falls 1988a, b, 1991, Horn et al. 1993), and a number of researchers have provided insight into the habitat requirements and demography of Western Meadowlarks in the US (Rotenberry and Wiens 1980, Johnson and Temple 1990, Kofrd et al. 2000, Johnson and Igl 2001, Johnson and Schwartz 1993) and Canada (Owens and Myers 1973, Davis and Sealy 2000, McMaster and Davis 2001, Davis 2003, 2004, Davis et al. 2006)