Meadowlark numbers decline across North Dakota

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 mph would make much of a difference—but it was slow enough to allow enough of a look to positively identify the bird as Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). 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 also is 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 its bright yellow chest 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.

Source: Grand Forks Herald, June 24, 2016…