A few years ago on a Sunday drive near the edge of West Fargo, creeping along with no particular route in mind, one of my kids let out the proverbial: “Look.”
Instinctively I took my foot of the gas—not that slowing from 10 mph down to 5 would make much of a difference—but it was slow enough to allow enough of a look to positively identify the bird as a Western meadowlark.
Years ago a meadowlark, even near the edge of town, might not have prompted a stop. This grassland native seemed much more common then, but that has changed and my kids who appreciate the unique birds of North Dakota were right to give the signal.
While perhaps not as highly revered nationwide as our national symbol, the bald eagle, which has recovered from listing as an endangered species, the Western meadowlark does have high status on a more local and regional scale. State lawmakers tabbed it as North Dakota’s state bird in 1947, and it is also the state bird in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Oregon.
This symbol of the prairie is unmistakable in sight and sound from other prairie songbirds, with their bright yellow chests accented by a black V-shaped band. The chippy melody has greeted me many mornings in pastures and grasslands, certainly not as loud as the wild rooster crow, but memorable nonetheless.
Unfortunately this historical symbol of North Dakota’s wide open prairie landscape isn’t nearly as numerous as it once was.
In a recent issue of “North Dakota Outdoors” magazine, Game and Fish Department conservation biologist Sandra Johnson explains: “While the Western meadowlark is still found statewide, its numbers are certainly not what they once were according to historical records in the eastern third of the state. There just isn’t much grass in that part of the state. Take away the grass and you lose birds.”
Johnson said the Western meadowlark’s standing in North Dakota is traced through the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The BBS is a long-term, international avian monitoring program initiated in 1966 to track the status and trends of North American bird populations.
While the number of meadowlarks observed or heard during the annual BBS has declined across the state, the biggest drop since the 1960s is seen in the Red River Valley and drift prairie.
“Once you leave the Red River Valley heading west, you really don’t start to see an abundance of Western meadowlarks until you hit the Missouri Coteau where we still have grass,” Johnson said.
Still, the Western meadowlark remains common from Canada to Mexico, even though it has experienced declines over its entire range, its status in North Dakota is uncertain.
“If we continue to lose more and more grass in North Dakota, then we are going to see fewer and fewer meadowlarks,” Johnson said.
The Western meadowlark was recently added to the state’s revised list of Species of Conservation Priority under the Game and Fish Department’s State Wildlife Grant program.
While a number of the 100-plus animals that make up this list are familiar to people who live here, few are as iconic as the Western meadowlark.
As we spend time this summer on the prairies of North Dakota, we’ll keep our eyes and ears open for all birds that call North Dakota home, and we’ll give pause to acknowledge the call of a meadowlark, one of the wild “citizens” that make our North Dakota outdoors second to none.