I wasn’t around when the debate took place in Bismarck to determine just what bird would represent the great state of North Dakota as its avian symbol, but I’d be interested in reading the record if one exists.
It was 1947. World War II was still fresh in our collective psyche. The nation was ridding itself of the awful burden of sending its youngest and fittest—the “greatest generation”—to fight on foreign shores. It was a time of hope, a time of peace, a time of opportunity. When all was settled, the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) was chosen and remains a prominent image on official state publications.
This is a bird familiar to just about everyone in the country who lives west of the Mississippi River. The bright yellow chest blazed with a bold black “V” can be expected almost anywhere with grassy habitat. In flight it looks like a heavy-bodied little football with stubby wings, sort of the bumblebee of the bird world.
It’s known to habitually sit on fence posts and sing. Boy does it sing. That rich flutelike sound from these chunky prairie birds provides a constant, yet pleasant, soundtrack to the grassland tableau.
Among the tiny handful of official bird surveys I conduct for various agencies every year, there are none more enjoyable than the shorebird census administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. My designated route begins in cultivated farmland west of Colfax, N.D., where there are nearly zero shorebirds.
Then a wonderful transition occurs as the course begins to enter the Sheyenne National Grasslands.
Suddenly, marbled godwits, Wilson’s snipes, upland sandpipers and Wilson’s phalaropes are everywhere. It’s remarkable, as if someone has flipped a switch. Habitat, as I’ve written many times, is everything.
While running the route earlier this month, I was struck by an idea unrelated to shorebirds. Maybe next year I should count western meadowlarks along the way too. I heard many, an average of perhaps three per stop. That totals approximately 150 birds for the morning. Not bad, considering it’s a species in decline according to survey data.
Occasionally I’ll be asked to speak about birds to groups in town. Quite often it’s a senior living facility.
My favorite part is interacting with the audience. I enjoy listening to people tell stories of their encounters with nature and birds. Easily, the No. 1 question I get asked is, “Where have all the meadowlarks gone?” My answer is usually, “Nowhere.” On quiet mornings, for instance, I can stand on the tarmac at Fargo Jet Center and hear singing western meadowlarks in every direction. Just give them a little grass and they are happy, it seems.
Carefully, I try to explain the two causes I feel are responsible for their concern. First and foremost, these are folks who, by and large, come from rural areas but have since moved into town and away from grassland habitat. Simply stated, there are no meadowlarks found along urban streets. Second, many of these individuals are older than average and their ability to hear is not what it once was. Even in appropriate habitat, few of them, unfortunately, would even be able to pick up the song of a singing meadowlark.
Why ‘western?’ Because there is an eastern meadowlark (S. magna) too, a nearly identical species that populates open brushy grassland in the eastern U.S. We sit on the ragged eastern fringe of the western’s range. When I step out of the airplane after landing in Red Wing, Minn., for instance, I’m immediately met with singing eastern meadowlarks. Well, sort of singing. The song of the eastern meadowlark contrasts dramatically with our bird. A truncated, almost pitiful attempt to match its western cousin, it utters a weak “WE-ee SEE-you.”
Yet so dearly esteemed and so richly symbolic is the western meadowlark that five other states chose it for their official bird as well. What does Oregon (parts of it), Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, and Nebraska have in common? Wide, broad-shouldered landscapes that reach from horizon to horizon; land filled with opportunity, wonder, and subtle beauty. The western meadowlark seems to represent all of these ideals and many more. It calls this land of wind and dramatic skies home. Thankfully, we do too.