For generations of Missouri farmers, an enjoyable sign that spring was transitioning into summer was the crisp, clear call of a meadowlark perched on a nearby fencepost. However, that call is becoming alarmingly less common throughout the region.
Many people are familiar with the decrease of the greater prairie-chicken throughout much of the central U.S. and most have also heard about the steadily worsening quail situation for the same area. However, unless you’re a birding enthusiast, you’re likely unaware of the downward spiral of eastern meadowlark numbers. This decline may be surprising to some because these yellow-breasted birds can still be seen in pastures, meadows and hayfields across southwest Missouri.
However, data shows that this bird’s melodic call is definitely being heard with less frequency. The eastern meadowlark ranks sixth on the National Audubon Society’s list of top 20 common North American birds in decline. According to surveys, the continent’s eastern meadowlark numbers have dropped a whopping 89 percent between 1966 and 2015. The reasons for this drop are similar to those associated with the afore-mentioned prairie chicken and quail: Urban development, changes in farming practices and the increasing prevalence of exotic grass species have all played roles in reducing areas where native grasses are thriving. Biologists theorize these land-use changes are the reasons populations of eastern meadowlarks and a number of other grassland species are declining.
Eastern meadowlarks are birds of open areas. They can be found in hayfields, pastures, prairies and other areas where the dominant vegetation is tall grass. They belong to the Icteridae family, which means bird experts don’t consider them larks; they’re more closely related to blackbirds. “True larks” belong to the Alaudidae family – predominantly an Old World group of species. It’s thought meadowlarks received their names because of the way they occasionally deliver songs in flight, much like England’s skylarks.
If you’re wondering why should you care about a colorful, but seemingly inconsequential songbird, consider this – improving habitat for meadowlarks has multiple wildlife benefits. You’re not just making things better for meadowlarks. The eastern meadowlark is just one creature in a rich mosaic of birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians that make up a grassland ecosystem. So whether you go in search of quail with a shotgun or songbirds with a pair of binoculars or camera; if you help one species, you have the potential to help them all.
In many cases, management for grassland species doesn’t only benefit wild creatures that use the habitat – it helps domestic ones, too. Using native warm-season grasses as part of a rotational grazing system provides forage that is higher in nutrition during summer than cool-season grasses such as fescue. If it’s cut and baled at the proper time (after nesting season), it can also provide high-quality hay without doing much damage to the habitat needs of wildlife.
Information about the wildlife and agricultural benefits of managing land for grassland species can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or other land-management agencies.
People will have a number of opportunities to learn about the state’s bird diversity and participate in birding activities in May as part of the month-long celebration of the Great Missouri Birding Trail. This cooperative effort of the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Bird Conservation Foundation has highlighted a number of sites across the state where people can enjoy birding. Celebrations of the Trail’s completion will be held throughout the month, commencing with the Springfield Conservation Nature Center’s event on May 11 at 9 a.m. More information about this event can be found by contacting the Nature Center at 417-888-4237. Information about the Great Missouri Birding Trail and other events later in the month elsewhere in the state can be found at greatmissouribirdingtrail.com.
Information about birds in Missouri can be found at mdc.mo.gov.