There are lots of signs of spring. No one of them is definitive, but taken together they are completely convincing.
Probably the most familiar of these signs is the arrival of the western meadowlark, the state bird of North Dakota and five other states. The meadowlark is instantly recognizable and its song is loud and distinctive.
The sound brought relief and joy to winter weary settlers on the wide open prairie.
Many fewer North Dakotans experience those emotions these days. Most of us live in towns and cities, which aren’t amenable to meadowlarks. Out on the prairie, meadowlarks are disappearing. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has placed the state bird on its list of species of concern.
It’s still possible to find meadowlarks, but it isn’t as easy as it once was. Once, driving down any gravel road would flush meadowlarks, because grassy ditches provided places for them to nest. Modern, intensive agricultural practices have all but eliminated grassy ditches. Pastures have also disappeared as cattle numbers declined. Field crops, especially row crops such as beans and corn, bring a better return than cattle. With grains, including wheat, the return per acre was closer to even, and tilling cost more than grazing. Meadowlarks thrived during the heyday of the Conservation Reserve Program, which returned many thousands of acres to grassland. That program has been drastically scaled back, however, and the meadowlarks went with it.
Where habitat remains, however there are meadowlarks to be found.
Where to look
The swath of grassland west of Grand Forks has nesting meadowlarks, and a drive on the extension of DeMers Avenue likely will yield a meadowlark on a fence post. Grand Forks County Road 33 west from Manvel, N.D., is another good route, and it has the advantage of being paved. Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge, marked by a sign on U.S. Highway 2, also has meadowlarks.
The meadowlark is instantly recognizable by the prominent yellow breast with the black v-shaped chevron emblazoned across it. Meadowlarks in flight are a bit trickier, however. They are chunky birds, larger than any of the grassland sparrows and smaller than the chicken-like grassland birds — the partridge, the sharp-tailed grouse and the prairie chicken.
A meadowlark in flight appears brown overall, but with prominent white patches at the outer edges of the tail. These and the bird’s size are definitive — but not quite.
There are two meadowlark species. The state bird is the western meadowlark. The eastern meadowlark also occurs in our area, though it is much less common. The two species can be separated by sight, but it is a frustrating process requiring longer and closer examination than any wild bird is likely to give any human observer.
Far better to rely on sound.
The western meadowlark’s song is melodic, often described as flute-like whistling. By contrast, the eastern meadowlark’s call is a much softer chirping trill, not at all like its cousin’s voice.
The meadowlarks are members of a New World family. A third meadowlark, Lillian’s, occurs in the desert Southwest. There’s disagreement about whether it is a species in its own right or a subspecies of the eastern meadowlark. It seems likely that the controversy will be resolved in favor of species status. That is the trend in today’s classification of birds. What’s more, the range of Lillian’s meadowlark is distinct from that of eastern meadowlarks, and so there has been no interbreeding for a good long while.
Telling a Lillian’s from an eastern meadowlark is more trying even than separating eastern and western meadowlarks. That’s not a challenge in the Red River Valley, however, since only western and eastern meadowlarks occur here, and western meadowlarks outnumber eastern meadowlarks, probably by a margin of more than 10 to 1.
That’s not the case farther east and south, however. Southern Minnesota has many eastern meadowlarks, and clear and certain identification of a meadowlark seen there could yield either species.
Other spring birds
The meadowlark is hardly the only bird to usher in the spring season here. Thousands of red-winged blackbirds appeared last weekend, and both harriers and red-tailed hawks showed up in open country. Robins are suddenly numerous in pairs and on urban lawns, supplementing the remnant population that managed to survive the winter here. Mourning doves are back, too.
By far the most astonishing proof of oncoming springtime in the bird world is the enormous number of snow geese passing through. En route to Bismarck Tuesday, I saw tens of thousands. This is not an exaggeration. I don’t think I was out of sight of snow geese from the time I left our place west of Gilby, N.D., until I pulled into the parking lot at the capitol. I stopped a couple of times to marvel at them. In one field south of Hurdsfield, N.D., I guessed there were as many as 30,000 snow geese. About 100 greater white-fronted geese were with them.