The eastern meadowlark’s upperpart feathers have dark brown centers and pale edges. The crown is dark with a light median stripe; eyebrow and moustachial streak are white; lores (space between eye and bill) yellow; eye line dark. Outer tail feathers are white or partially white; noticeable in flight but also when the bird flicks them while on the ground. The brown central tail feathers have dark centers and heavy barring. Underparts yellow; a black V marks the breast; sides and flanks have dark streaks. Under tail feathers are white. Song is often a pair of clear, descending whistles: tsee-you, tsee-yer. Call is a harsh dzzzzzert.
Similar species: The western meadowlark is a common permanent resident in northwest Missouri, rare and scattered in the rest of the state. Upperparts are paler, the feathers lacking the dark centers that eastern meadowlarks have. The song is very different: a beautiful, clear, descending whistle followed by a flutelike gurgling that fades near the end. Call is a dull chuck or chup.
Length: 9½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Habitat and Conservation
Common permanent resident foraging on the ground in pastures, hay fields, prairies, airports, and crop fields. In winter meadowlarks are often seen near livestock enclosures, feeding on spilled grains.
The sharp, long bills of meadowlarks enable them to hunt ground-dwelling insects such as grubs, crickets, and grasshoppers. Like many other members of the blackbird family, they jab their strong, swordlike bills into the soil, then open their jaws, prying open the grass and soil, uncovering grubs and other “goodies.” In winter, they also eat seeds.
Common permanent resident. There are several subspecies of the eastern meadowlark. Subspecies magna predominates in the northern half of our state, while argutula is in the south. Meanwhile, the eastern and western species rarely interbreed — their calls are very different, and where their ranges overlap they rarely occupy the same territory.
Meadowlarks are ground nesters. The female builds a cup-shaped nest of grasses, plant stalks, and similar materials, usually in some kind of depression on the ground, often hidden under some low plants. Sometimes the nests are covered with a roof or have an arched entrance. From 2 to 7 eggs are laid, and the young hatch naked and helpless. They can leave the nest 10 to 12 days after hatching. Don’t disturb nesting meadowlarks. Females often abandon their eggs if scared off the nest.
The eastern meadowlark’s slurring, clear songs sweeten summer days on farms, in prairies, and other open, grassy areas. They often sing from fence posts or telephone lines, where we can easily admire them. Meadowlarks devour many insects that humans find troublesome.
Meadowlarks are in the same family (Icteridae) as blackbirds, grackles, orioles, and bobolinks. Perhaps the best way to see the resemblance is in their strong, sharp bills. Many icterids pry open grasses and soil for insects the way meadowlarks do.
Where to See Species
About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.