The clear, flutelike song of a Western meadowlark drifted in through the open window of my bedroom summer mornings in my childhood. The bird sang from telephone wires north of our yard in Roseville. The telephone line bordered open space that had only recently been a cow pasture. We called it a “vacant lot.”
The bird undoubtedly had a nest in the grassy expanse that stretched beyond our little cluster of suburban ramblers. I’d watch as the singer left his post and dove purposely downward, tail fanned, exposing the white outer tail feathers that every birder comes to recognize as a mark of a meadowlark.
As a young child, no older than six, I was captivated by that bird, not only because of its lovely song — to this day, I can think of no finer songster in North America — but also because of its saffron yellow breast feathers and the big, bold V streaking its chest.
Our new yard in the young Roseville of the 1950s had only the slenderest of trees. No birds rested in them, not even robins. I was interested in birds from an early age. My mother presented me with a little Chester Reed field guide on my seventh birthday and I was continuously irritated by how deficient in wildlife our yard was: no interesting birds, no squirrels, little trees, no shade.
There was only the Western meadowlark, singing from the wire, filling our mornings and evenings with song.
I live outside the city now, on the edge of a small town, adjacent to farm fields. It should be perfect habitat for Western meadowlarks and yet I haven’t heard one in years.
When we first moved to Chisago County 30 years ago, I heard both Western and Eastern meadowlarks singing from fields as I cycled on back roads. But grassland birds have taken a hit in the past few decades. Exurban sprawl and current mowing practices destroy nesting habitat for meadowlarks and other birds that nest on the ground in open areas. Hayfields, in fact, often act as a death trap, luring birds in, only to have their nests destroyed with the first cutting of hay. Grassland birds usually renest — only to have their second attempts destroyed by second cuttings. Then July and the breeding season are over, and if the parent birds survived the destruction, they left no offspring. It doesn’t take long for a population to die out under those circumstances.
But Western meadowlarks are doing well in regions where fields are grazed, not mowed. I heard many singing on a recent trip to North Dakota. Their music filled the prairie air, sweet and pure and melodic. It brought back memories of Roseville, when it still had vacant lots and meadowlarks, when the suburb and I were young.
Sue Leaf is a freelance writer and the author of “A Love Affair with Birds: the life of Thomas Sadler Roberts,” which was a finalist for a 2014 Minnesota Book Award.