The importance of bringing back the meadowlarks

Francis Skalicky, Missouri Department of Conservation
The eastern meadowlark.

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 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 another bird that can be found in the same open, grassy areas – the eastern meadowlark. This decline may be surprising to some because these yellow-breasted birds can still be seen in pastures, meadows and hayfields across southwest Missouri.

News of the eastern meadowlark’s decline isn’t top news in science circles yet – the bird isn’t on any list of endangered or threatened species. However, data shows that this bird’s melodic call is definitely being heard with less frequency. Bird surveys that go back a half-century show that North America’s eastern meadowlark numbers have been on a steady decline, dropping an approximate rate of three percent per year during that time. The reasons for this drop are similar to those associated with the afore-mentioned prairie chicken and quail: Urban development, changes in farming practices, the increasing prevalence of non-native grass species, and other changes in landscape usage have all played roles in the decline of this bird, and other grassland bird species.

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; if you help one species, you have the potential to help them all.

Using native warm-season grasses as part of a rotational grazing system and conducting haying and other farming operations in a conservation-oriented fashion can have benefits for a number of wildlife species. However, in many cases, management for grassland species doesn’t only benefit wild creatures that use the habitat – it helps domestic ones, too. For instance, 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, other land-management agencies, and at mdc.mo.gov.

Information about birds in Missouri can also be found at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.