Eastern Meadowlark

Sturnella magna

  • Version: 2.0 — Published November 30, 2012
  • Levi A. Jaster, William E. Jensen, and Wesley E. Lanyon

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Eastern Meadowlark in North and Central America.
Adult male Eastern Meadowlark, Anahuac NWR, TX, March.

Eastern Meadowlarks are told from Western Meadowlarks by their white (vs. yellow) malar, their bolder blackish head stripes, and their more contrasting and bold black flank streaking. Easterns average more white in the outer tail feathers, especially the subspecies S. m. lilianae in the Southwest. Voice is a critical distinction between the two, with Eastern having a more fluid song and Western being more jumbled. Calls differ as well. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

No bird is more representative of farmland and open country throughout eastern North America than the Eastern Meadowlark. Many facets of its biology contribute to its popularity: its plaintive but spirited song, a welcome harbinger of spring, delivered from roadside fence post or utility line; its bright yellow breast with black crescent; its distinctive quail-like flight and conspicuous white margins to the tail that make it easily identifiable; and its habit of congregating in small flocks during fall and winter months.

This meadowlark is polytypic, and its many subspecies may be found nesting in open country from the grassy dunes of the Atlantic Coast west to the more lush river valleys of the Great Plains, and from the pastures and grasslands of southern Canada south through the savannas of Middle America and northern South America -- making it one of our most widely distributed songbirds. In recent decades, however, this species has declined in numbers throughout much of its North American range owing to changes in land use and human encroachment.

Audubon's report (Audubon 1844) of a meadowlark (Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta) west of the Mississippi, similar in appearance but differing in voice from the familiar Eastern Meadowlark (S. magna), triggered a debate over the status of these birds that lasted for another century. Studies of their morphology, ecology, and behavior in regions of sympatry from Texas to Ontario revealed little or no evidence of interbreeding and one of the first cases of interspecific territoriality among North American birds. Subsequent research with captive birds demonstrated a high incidence of hybrid sterility. Separation of the two species in the field is difficult except by their species-specific songs and calls.

The Eastern Meadowlark is not a lark (Family Alaudidae) but is related instead to New World blackbirds and troupials (Family Emberizidae, subfamily Icterinae).

Recommended Citation

Jaster, L. A., W. E. Jensen, and W. E. Lanyon (2012). Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.