Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

Photo by Eric Preston Western Meadowlark by Eric PrestonWestern Meadowlark distribution map


Population Information

The Federal BBS information can be obtained at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/bbs.html by clicking on Trend Estimates and selecting the species in question. All estimates are for time period (1966-2005).

Life History

Habitat Selection

Western Meadowlarks inhabit pastures and small grain fields. This species also occurs in other short, open grasslands and agriculture fields including hayfields, short to medium height idle grasslands, dry old fields, dry-mesic prairies, and open barrens. Western Meadowlarks typically are found in drier and more open areas than Eastern Meadowlarks, although both can be found in the same habitat patch (Niemuth 2006). Additionally, Western Meadowlarks tend to prefer habitats with less woody cover and shorter vegetation height-density than Eastern Meadowlark (Sample and Mossman 1997).

Habitat Availability

Native grasslands have been almost completely lost since European settlement, and agricultural land has undergone many changes, from the era of wheat farming in the late 1800s, to the dominance of dairy farming in the mid-1900s, to the growth of row cropping in recent decades (Sample 1989). Existing parcels of native grasslands in the state are few, and those remaining are vulnerable to fragmentation, row crop conversion, urban development, and forest succession. Pastures, small grains, dry old fields, and hayfields are more common, but are still subject to the same threats.

Population Concerns

The Western Meadowlark population in Wisconsin has experienced extreme fluctuations over the last 100 years. There are very few records of this species in the state prior to 1900 (Lanyon 1953). By 1922, the Western Meadowlark was reported as abundant and equally numerous as the Eastern Meadowlark in southern and western Wisconsin (Stoddard 1922). During the 1940s the Western Meadowlark invasion was found to have penetrated into the extreme northern regions of the state. This range expansion was likely due in part to changing agricultural practices (i.e., livestock and dairy farming) that favored Western Meadowlark habitat needs (Lanyon 1953).

Since 1980 Breeding Bird Survey data show significant population declines of Western Meadowlarks in Wisconsin and surrounding states (Sauer et al. 2005). The Western Meadowlark remains widespread in the southwestern region of the state, which contains the highest acreages of prairie remnants, pastures, and Conservation Reserve Program lands (Sample and Mossman 1997). However, during the six-year period (1995-2000) of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, observers were able to confirm breeding on only 53 of the 1,130 quads surveyed (Niemuth 2006). The same factor that contributed to the Western Meadowlark’s range expansion into this state in the early twentieth century is now likely contributing to its decline. Changing agricultural practices, in particular the conversion of pastures and small grain crops to row crops has decreased the suitability of agricultural habitat for grassland bird species (Graber and Graber 1963). Additionally, surface tillage for spring weed control and early harvesting of hayfields can lead to reproductive failure for this species (Lanyon 1994).  

Recommended Management

Management strategies to benefit Western Meadowlarks include protecting large, native grassland areas from conversion to agricultural production, treating (burn, graze, or mow) portions of large areas on a rotational schedule to provide a mosaic of successional stages, controlling the encroachment of woody vegetation, mowing hayfields in late summer (after July 15), and undercutting wheat stubble in the spring instead of using surface tilling (Dechant et al. 1999). Conservation strategies for this species should be focused in the following Wisconsin ecological landscapes: Central Sand Hills, Central Sand Plains, Southeast Glacial Plains, Southwest Savanna, Western Coulee and Ridges, and Western Prairie (WDNR 2005). Within these landscapes, public lands important for the management of this species include Thomson Prairie Grasslands and Yellowstone/Pecatonica River Grasslands and Savannas (David Sample, pers. comm.).

Research Needs

More research is needed on the winter distribution and habitat requirements for the northeastern population of Western Meadowlarks. Continued monitoring and investigation into this species’ population decline also is needed. Additional data are needed on the extent of hybridization with the Eastern Meadowlark at the eastern periphery of the breeding range (Lanyon 1994).

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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