BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Meadowlarks
Meadowlarks, dowitchers, and the weather: they actually have something in common. As the old saying goes: "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it." Similarly, as discussed in this column's recent discussion on dowitcher ID, nobody's done much about that topic either, with so little written about dowitchers over the years.
Even less has been done or written to help birders identify meadowlarks. Not a single bird identification website I'm aware of says much of anything about how to tell one meadowlark from the other. And it seems the last time any journal has had an article on meadowlark ID was three decades ago, way back in 1976! ("Gleanings from the Technical Literature: Eastern and Western Meadowlarks" – Birding 8:349-352.)
As might be expected, the standard field guides don't completely address this ID problem, and the only book I've seen with a section on meadowlarks (Identification Guide to North American Birds by Peter Pyle) is not very encouraging, opening its account with this ominous warning: "This is one of the most difficult in-hand species identification problems."
The following brief attempt to offer some suggestions on how to unravel the mysteries of meadowlark ID will be limited to a Minnesota context, so much of this discussion may not be relevant in other parts of the country. Note especially I've chosen to ignore the lilianae race of the Eastern Meadowlark, a form in the southwestern U.S. which is a candidate for splitting into full species status. (Just what we need: three meadowlark ID headaches instead of two!)
Range and Season
As meadowlark names suggest, there are some places in Minnesota during the breeding season where you're pretty safe assigning an ID to a meadowlark based on range alone. With a few isolated exceptions, the Eastern Meadowlark is essentially absent in summer west of a north-south line drawn from Warroad to Fairmont, so any meadowlark farther west should be a Western.
There's no place, however, where you can make a similar assumption about the Eastern Meadowlark from the map alone, since Westerns breed throughout Minnesota except in Cook County, where neither meadowlark normally summers. As discussed below, however, note that habitat considerations can often be useful where the range maps alone are not.
Since meadowlarks don't normally overwinter here, no assumptions about meadowlark ranges in mid-winter are possible. Indeed, in recent decades I am aware of only one overwintering meadowlark (an Eastern in Aitkin County) which was documented as anything as more than "meadowlark, sp." There are, by the way, records of both meadowlarks identified by song in December or in late February, but these most likely represent late fall or early spring migrants, not wintering birds.
During spring and fall, meadowlarks and other migrants are on the move, of course, so ID-by-range is less reliable than in summer. But it's reasonable to assume any meadowlark west of that Warroad-Fairmont line is still probably a Western, while east of there it's hard to say. Still, I suspect that any meadowlarks seen in Minnesota away from breeding habitat in spring or fall, especially if in a flock, are probably Westerns. This hunch applies especially to those few fall migrants we see along the North Shore of Lake Superior, where neither species normally breeds.
The Eastern Meadowlark is one of those Minnesota migrants with a curious tendency not to be seen that much in migration. (Other examples: Red-shouldered Hawk, Upland Sandpiper, Common Tern, Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Lark Sparrow, Brewer's Blackbird, and Orchard Oriole.) They mostly seem to suddenly appear on their breeding grounds in spring and just disappear abruptly as summer ends.
Habitat and Behavior
In those counties where both meadowlarks occur, breeding habitat presents a very good clue as to which species you're seeing. The fields favored by Easterns typically consist of longer and sometimes wetter grasses, are often in river valleys, tend to be relatively small, and are fragmented more by shrubs and trees. Conversely, Westerns typically prefer those larger, flatter, more upland, and more uniform fields where agricultural croplands and plowing predominate.
Some behavioral differences are also useful. Perhaps because Easterns tend to nest where there are more trees, the males will often sing from the treetops. (But I'm not saying Westerns don't do this, although they seem to do so less often.) There are some flight differences which, given enough practice and comparisons, an experienced birder can detect: watch for the Eastern's more explosive take-offs followed by a stiffer and Spotted Sandpiper-like flight. And, as mentioned earlier, flocking behavior in meadowlarks probably indicates they're Westerns.
As most birders are well aware, meadowlark songs and calls provide the best identification evidence. Their full territorial songs are typically easy to differentiate: the Western Meadowlark's more musical, bubbling, and complicated song being quite different from the Eastern's simple, slurred, descending, four-syllabled whistle. Intermediate songs are sometimes reported, which may suggest hybridization is involved, and keep in mind that young meadowlarks, who learn their songs from adults, might tune in to the "wrong" song from the other species.
Meadowlark call notes can be just as useful as the full songs. Listen for the Eastern's harsh and raspy dzzrt, which is not hard to tell from the Western's mellower and lower-pitched chuck. Both species can run these single notes together into rattles, which sound more similar to each other, but with practice you can still hear the same difference in quality: raspy = Eastern; mellow = Western.
Both species can also give a soft, rising whink call note in flight. To my ear, this call sounds the same for both species, though The Sibley Guide to Birds says the Western's flight call is slightly lower-pitched.
This is where things tend to get more complicated, curiously inconsistent, somewhat vague, and often frustrating. While there certainly are some plumage differences between the two meadowlarks which the field guides and other ID references discuss, none of these are easily seen, most involve some serious caveats, and some appear to be quite useless. (In addition, there is no information I can find anywhere on whether any field marks can be used to distinguish meadowlarks in juvenile plumage.)
• Overall, the Eastern Meadowlark's upperparts appear darker and more reddish-brown, while the Western tends to look paler and more buffy-brown above. This plumage difference, however, would be subject to ambient light conditions and perhaps hard to judge without direct comparison between the species. It also seems unclear if the appearance of the upperparts differs only on alternate-plumage adults: the Geographic field guide implies this distinction is also valid in fall and winter, while the illustrations in the Sibley guide show no difference between the species in fall/winter.
• The head stripes on an Eastern Meadowlark look dark brown or blackish, solidly colored, and contrasting with the paler brown of the auriculars and nape; the Western's stripes are paler brown, more streaked, and less contrasting. This difference seems to apply to adults at all time of year, but, like the upperparts color, the distinction can be slight, hard to determine without comparison, and dependent on the light conditions.
• Perhaps the best plumage difference between the meadowlarks involves the tertials, upper tail coverts, and central rectrices. On an Eastern, these feathers appear broadly blackish along the shafts; on a Western, these feathers are only narrowly cross-barred with black. This field mark seems to hold up on adults at all times of year, but it is curious and disconcerting that Pyle's Identification Guide does not include this feature as a valid distinction between the meadowlarks and illustrates no difference in the central rectrices of the two species. Consequently, I hesitate to unequivocally claim that the pattern of these feathers represents a diagnostic filed mark.
• As a meadowlark flies directly away from you, an Eastern's tail might appear whiter than a Western's. This is because the Eastern's outer three rectrices are basically all-white, compared with only two rectrices on the Western. Though this feature is valid year-round, this is yet another difference which is relatively slight and hard to discern in the field, especially without direct comparison between the species.
• I suspect many birders have long been under the impression that, given a reasonably close view, meadowlarks can be identified by where the yellow meets the bill: i.e., only touching the underside of the Eastern's bill, while reaching halfway up the side to include the malar area on a Western. Unfortunately, on many Westerns (primarily females) the yellow can stop below the bill, like an Eastern. In other words, while a yellow malar area still indicates a Western Meadowlark, a white malar area could fit either species and is not diagnostic. Be sure to note as well that the malar color on many meadowlarks of both species, especially from late summer through mid-winter, can be obscured, buffy, and then not a useful field mark.
• According to the Sibley guide, the ground color of the streaked flanks differs on the meadowlarks, even during fall and winter: i.e., buffy on the Eastern and white on the Western. While there may be a tendency for this to be true, I have seen several photos of Easterns showing clearly white flanks. So, with all due respect to Sibley's skills, I have to disagree and say that flank color will only be useful if buffy (indicating Eastern Meadowlark), but white flanks can indicate either species. Also, keep in mind that flank colors will often be difficult to accurately determine and can vary with the light conditions and the angle at which you're observing the bird.
• Is Sibley losing his touch? His guide also says that "typical" Eastern Meadowlarks have longer and continuous streaks on the flanks, while Westerns "often" have more broken streaks (i.e., the flanks more spotted than streaked). Again, this tendency may sound interesting but it is far from diagnostic. It didn't take me long to find some Eastern Meadowlark photos showing streaked flanks and others showing spotted flanks. And, of course, it's easy to find photos of Westerns showing similarly inconsistent flank patterns.
* * *
There's another cliché about the weather you hear almost everywhere you go, something along the lines of: "If you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes and it will change." I wish the same could be said about meadowlarks. Unfortunately, though, if you don't like identifying them, a solution may not come along anytime soon, and certainly not within the few minutes it took to read this article. It might take another 30 years.