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Eastern Meadowlark
Sturnella magna
Order
PASSERIFORMES
– Family
ICTERIDAE
Authors: Lanyon, Wesley E.
Revisors: Jaster, Levi A., and William E. Jensen

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Introduction

Adult male Eastern Meadowlark, Anahuac NWR, TX, March.
Figure 1. Distribution of the Eastern Meadowlark in North and Central America.

No bird is more representative of farmland and open country throughout eastern North America than the Eastern Meadowlark. Many facets of its biology contribute to its popularity: its plaintive but spirited song, a welcome harbinger of spring, delivered from roadside fence post or utility line; its bright yellow breast with black crescent; its distinctive quail-like flight and conspicuous white margins to the tail that make it easily identifiable; and its habit of congregating in small flocks during fall and winter months.

This meadowlark is polytypic, and its many subspecies may be found nesting in open country from the grassy dunes of the Atlantic Coast west to the more lush river valleys of the Great Plains, and from the pastures and grasslands of southern Canada south through the savannas of Middle America and northern South America -- making it one of our most widely distributed songbirds. In recent decades, however, this species has declined in numbers throughout much of its North American range owing to changes in land use and human encroachment.

Audubon’s report (1844) of a meadowlark (Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta) 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. Separation of the two species in the field is difficult except by their species-specific songs and calls.

The Eastern Meadowlark is not a lark (Family Alaudidae) but is related instead to New World blackbirds and troupials (Family Emberizidae, subfamily Icterinae).