In North Dakota, where have all the western meadowlarks gone?

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(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

MINOT, N.D. — The western meadowlark populations in North Dakota are still declining and its song is being heard less every year.

Western meadowlarks are robin-sized yellow breasted birds that are seen in the northern part of the United States during the spring, summer and early fall. They fly to the southern states for much of the winter.

Their most distinguishable features are their bright yellow bellies and the black V on their chests. The feathers on their backs are brown, gray and tan in color with black spots. Essy Rose, a longtime Minot resident who used to have her own farm near Deering, said she had seen several of them while living in a rural area.

“I would see them on fenceposts and hear them singing. They’re beautiful. Really, really, really beautiful,” she told the Minot Daily News.

Avid birders and some of the people who grew up in the Midwest can identify them by their song alone. It consists of seven to 10 notes, ending in three descending notes.

“They have a unique tune,” Rose said.

Ron Martin, one of the avid birders in the area, described the western meadowlark’s song as “a throaty warble. It’s loud and it carries quite a ways.” He also mentioned that the males sing more often than the females and sit up a bit higher.

Alexandra Deufel is a biology professor at Minot State University. She offered some other functions of their song. They use their call to attract mates and also to let other birds know that the area they are singing in is their territory. If two males end up in the same area, they fight by jumping several feet in the air. Those battles for the female in the area can get quite loud.

The North Dakota state bird’s breeding population has been declining by 1% every year from 1966 to 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. There have been a number of factors involved, including habitat conversion of turning prairies and grasslands into agriculture land or housing developments, pesticides used in fields, invasive plants and fire suppression altering native grasslands, according to allaboutbirds.org.

Changing the grasslands and prairies of North Dakota have left the meadowlark species with less places to make their nests and raise their young. A lot of bird species make their nests high up in tree branches, but the meadowlark is much different. They make their nests in divots in the ground, using a variety of materials, including but not limited to grasses and flexible pieces of shrub stems.

Making their nests on the ground leaves them more vulnerable to their predators: skunks, foxes, weasels, coyotes and hawks, to name a few. To attempt to hide their nests, the females will make a divot in the ground with their beaks underneath thick grasses, line it with materials and weave a roof over the nest to protect it against the elements.

Rose mentioned that sometimes the predators would take the eggs from the nests if they found it. If the adults were there, the predators would take them, too. She described their eggs being white with purple and tan speckles.

Meadowlarks are extremely sensitive to humans. If someone gets too close to their nest during the incubation period, they will fly away and abandon their nest.

One male meadowlark breeds with two females at a time. Each female typically tends to have between three to six eggs at a time, their incubation period ranging from 13 to 16 days. Humans getting too close to their nests can be another factor in their population declining, the eggs never getting a chance to finish incubating.

Not all meadowlarks breed at the same time, either. The birds that do not want to mate or are not sexually mature yet are called “floaters,” or nonbreeding birds. The floaters are usually a much paler yellow than the breeding birds.

So many things can have a significant impact on the meadowlark population, and much of it is caused by human interference. Taking care of the environment and staying mindful of the types of places the state bird likes to make its nest is vital in protecting them.

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