Eastern meadowlark Sturnella magna

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(Trend List) (Indices) (CBC Index) (Abundance Map) (CBC Map) (Trend Map) (Help Index)

Life History Groupings:

Breeding Habitat:Grassland

Nest Type:Open-cup nesting passerine

Migration Status:Short distance migrant

Nest Location:Ground-low nesting

Species Account:

Eastern Meadowlarks are common and widely distributed residents of prairies, hayfields, pastures, fallow lands, and occasionally fields sown to winter wheat in the eastern half of North America (Roseberry and Klimstra 1970). Their status and distribution has undergone historic changes in the northeastern U.S. where meadowlarks noticeably increased during the nineteenth century as a result of deforestation and the spread of agriculture (Andrle and Carroll 1988, Laughlin and Kibbe 1985). These population trends were reversed during the twentieth century, and Eastern Meadowlarks show some of the most consistent declines of any grassland bird on the BBS.

Despite their declining populations during recent decades, Eastern Meadowlarks remain common and widespread summer residents throughout their range. Along BBS routes, they are most numerous on the southern Great Plains from Missouri and Kansas into Texas. Similar abundances are also recorded on the Florida peninsula and from southern Illinois and Kentucky south to northern Alabama and northern Mississippi (Relative Abundance Map). The trend map shows decreasing populations throughout most of this range. Increases tend to be very small and localized, except along the western edge of the breeding range from western Kansas into central Texas (Trend Map). The long-term trends are almost entirely in a negative direction, with only a few states and strata showing non-significant increases. Most declines are significant, including trends in the Eastern and Central BBS regions, U.S., Canada, and survey-wide (Trend List). Declining populations prevail during both the 1966-1979 and 1980- 1994 intervals. Significant increases are limited to Texas, the East Texas Prairies (S08) stratum, and Central BBS Region during the early interval, and Illinois and the Till Plains (S31) stratum after 1980.

Declines in the survey-wide population have been fairly consistent since 1966, reflecting similar trends in the Eastern BBS Region (Survey-wide Annual Indices). Trends in the Central BBS Region are more variable through the early 1980s, followed by a decline (Central BBS Region Annual Indices). Robbins et al. (1986) reported declines associated with the severe winters of 1976-1978. These declines are most apparent in the midwest including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky. In some of these states, meadowlark populations fairly quickly recovered to earlier levels, but in others, there was little evidence of a substantial recovery following these winters (Illinois Annual Indices) (Indiana Annual Indices) (Kentucky Annual Indices) (Michigan Annual Indices). However, a variety of other temporal patterns are apparent in meadowlark population trends. A few populations have consistently declined since 1966, such as those in Florida and Georgia (Florida Annual Indices) (Georgia Annual Indices). Other populations show substantial declines through the severe winters of 1978, followed by continued but less severe decreases. This pattern is most prevalent from Ohio eastward (New York Annual Indices) (Ohio Annual Indices). Elsewhere, the most noticeable declines in Iowa occurred during the mid-1970s, while similar trends in Alabama occurred during 1980-1982 (Alabama Annual Indices) (Iowa Annual Indices). Meadowlark populations in Kansas have remained fairly stable, but with a slight declining tendency, while Texas populations increased through the early 1980s followed by a decline (Texas Annual Indices). The population in the southwestern U.S. has remained reasonably stable, in contrast with the trends elsewhere. The Arizona indices are representative of trends in that area (Arizona Annual Indices).

CBC data provides similar trends, with declines in most states except for the southwestern U.S. where populations have increased. Eastern Meadowlarks tend to winter farther north than most other grassland birds, which may explain their greater susceptibility to periodic severe winter weather conditions in the midwestern states.

In the northeastern states, these declines are largely attributed to extensive reforestation which has followed the abandonment of agriculture (Laughlin and Kibbe 1985). Changing agricultural practices are believed to be the primary factors elsewhere in their range. These factors included the conversion of grasslands and hayfields to cultivated crops, and the more frequent mowing of hayfields which reduces the reproductive success of breeding meadowlarks (Brauning 1992, Peterjohn and Rice 1991).

Literature Cited

Andrle, R.F., and J.R. Carroll, eds.  1988.  The atlas of breeding                    
     birds in New York State.  Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY.                       
     551 pp.                                                                          
Brauning, D.W.  1992.  Atlas of breeding birds in Pennsylvania.                       
     Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA.  484 pp.                              
Laughlin, S.B., and D.R. Kibbe, eds.  1985. The atlas of the                          
     breeding birds of Vermont.  Univ. Press of New England,                          
     Hanover, NH.  456 pp.                                                            
Peterjohn, B.G., and D.L. Rice.  1991.  The Ohio breeding bird                        
     atlas.  Ohio Dept. Natur. Resour., Columbus, OH.  416 pp.                        
Robbins, C.S., D. Bystrak, and P.H. Geissler.  1986.  The Breeding                    
     Bird Survey: its first fifteen years 1965-1979.  U.S. Fish and                   
     Wildl. Serv. Res. Publ. No. 157.  196 pp.                                        
Roseberry, J.L., and W.D. Klimstra.  1970.  The nesting ecology and                   
     reproductive performance of the Eastern Meadowlark.  Wilson                      
     Bull. 82:243-267.