May 05, 2023

We have been staying with my brother and sister-in-law this week while we have been in Kansas.  The last time in Wichita we stayed in a motel in the city rather than at my brother’s and I saw very few birds.  This visit I was amazed by the number and variety of species of birds that were living around the small pond and wooded green space that was behind their house.  I was aware of the Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) but had no idea of the of the other species.  The trees across the pond roosted a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and an occasional Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).  The pond was frequented by a Great Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and a blue heron (Ardea herodias) who both provided daily lessons on how to fish the small minnows and crappie (Pomoxis annularis) that remained after the onslaught by a group of cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) earlier in the spring.  On my last two visits to Kansas, I have come expecting to see a meadowlark which I could add to my birding list. 

When I looked online, I found the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) are a chunky, medium-sized songbird with short tails and long, spear-shaped bills.  The adult meadowlark measures about 8.5 inches (22 cm) in length.  It nests on the ground in open grasslands across western and central North America.  Meadowlarks feed mostly on bugs but will also feed on seeds and berries.  Females are smaller in all physical dimensions.  Adults have yellow underparts with a black “v” on the breast and white flanks with black streaks.  They have a long, pointed bill and the head is stripped with light brown and black.  The western meadowlark is the state bird of six states, Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming.  What differentiates the eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) from its western cousin is the song.  The Eastern’s song is pure melancholy whistles and is simpler than the jumbled and flute-like song of the western meadowlark.  This variation in song is the easiest way to tell the two species apart, and the reason for their separation as different species.  The songs are used to attract a mate and the difference means the two do not interbreed. 

I found two interesting facts I did not know about the western meadowlark while I was online.  The first is the male meadowlark usually has two mates at the same time.  The females do the incubating and brooding, along with most of the feeding of the young.  This polygamous behavior has helped ensure the species thrive.  One of the main dangers to nesting birds are mowing activity as humans harvest the prairie grass for cattle forage used during the winter.  The second fact learned was the species is classified as part of the blackbird family (Turdus spp.).  While the species does have black markings, it could hardly be mistaken for a blackbird.  I am still waiting to see a western (or eastern) meadowlark.

Thoughts:  Western Kansas is known nationally as a bird hunting destination.  This includes ringneck pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwater), and wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), as well as a variety of waterfowl.  One of the favorite hunted species is northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus).  When I was young the story was told of the eastern hunter who had come to Kansas to hunt quail.  After a day of hunting, he was confronted by the game warden and proudly laid his catch on the hood of his car.  Apparently, he also had a problem with bird identification as the quail he procured turned out to be 40 meadowlarks.  The meadowlark is the state bird of Kansas and shooting the bird carries a fine of US$250 per bird.  Quite often we misidentify what we see, and this can cause us to wrongly accept or reject things or others.   It is only when we take time to identify others and understand their differences that we can accept them.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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