Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)
Prepared by Paul Nicholson, London Bird Team, November 2022
It surprises some bird watchers to learn that the Eastern Meadowlark is a member of the blackbird or Icteridae family. All photos by Paul Nicholson.
Eastern Meadowlarks are in the blackbird family and they are a migratory species. Most arrive in Southwestern Ontario in March and fly south by late October.
This bird is about 25 cm in length. It has a long beak. The Eastern Meadowlark has a streaked brown back, white flashes on each side of the tail, and a dark V against a yellow chin, chest, and belly. Look also for contrasting stripes on the crown of the bird’s head. There are several subspecies of Eastern Meadowlarks.
Almost all of the meadowlarks seen in London and across Middlesex County are Eastern Meadowlarks. In 2021, avid bird watchers were very pleased that a Western Meadowlark was found west of the city. The Western Meadowlark is more likely to be seen in northwestern Ontario and across the Canadian prairies. The field marks of the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks are very similar. It is usually the birds’ vocalizations that are relied on for positive species identification.
A dark V against a yellow chin, chest, and belly are helpful identification field marks.
The Eastern Meadowlark is a Species At Risk in Ontario (SARO.) Since 2012, its status has been Threatened, meaning that the species “is likely to become endangered if steps are not taken to address factors threatening it.” This is a grassland bird, so when land was cleared for agricultural purposes generations ago, numbers increased. Since then, however, changes in land use and changes in agricultural practices have resulted in dramatically declining populations. The SARO website states that “In Ontario, the number of Eastern Meadowlarks has decreased by almost 65 per cent during the past 40 years.”
Larks are generally noted for their sweet songs, and this certainly holds for the Eastern Meadowlark. Its song is usually a series of five or so sweet, high-pitched notes. In contrast to this are its other vocalizations that include a nasal bzrrt call and a chatter call. These birds will typically vocalize from a perch such as a shrub or a fencepost.
Listen to the Eastern Meadowlark’s song below:
Eastern Meadowlarks are ground-feeding birds. The biggest part of their diet is insects. This is sometimes supplemented by seeds and grains if insects are unavailable.
Because this is a grassland species, it will feed and nest in pastures, meadows, hayfields, and spaces around airports or other open areas.
The female Eastern Meadowlark builds a well-hidden nest out of grasses and other plant matter in a little depression on the ground. Interestingly, a male Eastern Meadowlark will usually have two mates at a time.
Around London, Eastern Meadowlarks can be seen and heard near the airport. I have had success locating these birds around Airforce Place and Holder Place. Other good locations to check are the front part of the Kirk-Cousins Management Area south of the 401, and the open meadows of Komoka Provincial Park to London’s west. There is habitat and an information sign for the Eastern Meadowlark at Fanshawe Conservation Area north of the dam. Since 2020, the Conservation Action Committee of Nature London has worked with the London Health Sciences Centre to steward breeding habitat for the Eastern Meadowlark on their land located near Westminster Ponds ESA.
The Eastern Meadowlark’s flight is flitty. The white feathers on each side of the bird’s tail are very apparent when the bird does fly.
Help make London friendly for the Eastern Meadowlark:
As ever, when out birding follow the bird watchers’ code of ethics. The welfare of the birds always comes first. With Eastern Meadowlarks, the allaboutbirds.org website warns that: “during nesting, the female will abandon incubation of her eggs if she is forced off the nest.”
Reduce your ecological footprint as much as possible.
Avoid use of pesticides.
Drive slowly and carefully on roads next to natural areas.
Private land owners have a very important role to play in species recovery. If you find Eastern Meadowlarks nesting on your land, you may be eligible for stewardship programs that support the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats. The Canada-Ontario Farm Stewardship Program is available to eligible farmers to encourage greater protection and conservation of habitat for species at risk.
Retrofit your home windows using bird-friendly materials to prevent bird-window collisions.