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Eastern MeadowlarkEastern Meadowlark
In North America there are two very similar species of meadowlark. The Western Meadowlark (S. neglecta) ranges throughout the West from central British Columbia east to western Ontario and south to central Mexico. The Eastern Meadowlark has a far more extensive range, occurring from central Quebec throughout the eastern United States west to Nebraska and Texas, south along Mexico's Caribbean coast through Central America to Amazonia. Eastern Meadowlarks tolerate extremes of climate from hot tropical lowlands to cool meadows at 11,500 feet in the Andes Mountains. Both species have experienced range expansions in North America since colonial times, and their ranges now overlap. In the zone of overlap, each species defends territories against the other. The Western Meadowlark tends to use drier areas than the Eastern Meadowlark does. Distinguishing the two species can be very difficult because of similarities in their behavior and plumage, but they do have distinctive voices.
Eastern Meadowlark Range Map

A disjunct population of Eastern Meadowlark in the desert grasslands of southern Arizona and New Mexico, western Texas, and northern Mexico is considered by some to merit species ranking. Known as Lilian's Meadowlark, it is distinguished by subtle plumage differences and voice from the Western Meadowlark. Curiously, where Lilian's and Western Meadowlarks occur together, the Lilian's takes the drier territories.

Southern Eastern Meadowlark populations are sedentary, but at the northern edge of the range they are partially migratory, avoiding areas with deep snow in winter. Large flocks from twenty to a few hundred birds form during migration. In the parts of the range abandoned during the winter, the males arrive several weeks ahead of females to claim territories. Males display to each other, and later to females, by tilting the bill upward and showing the bright yellow breast and black breast band. Another display is the jump-flight, where rivals leap into the air one after the other, fluttering their wings with tail cocked upward and feet dangling. The plaintive slurred "Spring-of-the-year" song is given from fence posts or other elevated perches most often during the formation of territories.

Males are commonly polygamous, with two or three females sharing a male's territory. Females begin several nests before selecting one to finish and eventually laying three to five speckled white eggs. Female meadowlarks construct nests in small depressions scratched out by the bird or sometimes in hoofprints made by cattle or horses. The nests have a domed roof of grasses woven into neighboring plants and a large side entrance.After about two weeks of incubation, the young hatch. Both parents feed the young for the 11 to 12 days until fledging. Once the young have fledged, the male may assume most of the care if the female renests.

Like other icterids, Meadowlarks can find food by gaping--forcibly opening their bills--in soil or in plant stalks to expose hidden prey. About three-quarters of their food is insects and other invertebrates. They also eat seeds and berries.

Description: Meadowlarks are chunky short-tailed birds with blackish-brown and buff streaked upperparts and wings. They have a striped black and white crown, a yellow and white area on the side of the head above the eye, or supercilium, and a black stripe through the eye extending back and curving down to the nape. The underparts are bright yellow with a prominent black V extending across the breast. There are dark streaks at the flanks. The outer tail feathers are white. The long and sharply pointed bill is bluish-gray and darker along the top ridge and at the tip.

Without the song, separating meadowlark species is a challenge. The simple and clear slurred whistle of the Eastern Meadowlark is quite distinctive from the lower-pitched and more flute-like warbled song of the Western Meadowlark. Eastern Meadowlarks tend on the average to be darker and more rufous-tinged than Western Meadowlarks; the buffy flanks are marked with continuous streaks. Western flanks are whitish with more broken streaks. The tail usually has more white on Eastern Meadowlarks, and the malar feathers along each side of the lower jaw is white in Eastern and yellow in Western Meadowlarks. Lilian's Meadowlark differs from Western Meadowlarks in having much more white in the tail, more head contrast, and paler cheeks. Like typical Eastern Meadowlarks it has whitish malar areas, but overall it is pale like a Western Meadowlark.

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