Status: Abundant regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Abundant breeder west, central, and northeast, common southeast. Uncommon regular winter visitor south and east, rare elsewhere.
Documentation: Specimen: UNSM ZM11049, 30 Oct 1890 Lincoln, Lancaster Co.
Taxonomy: Two weakly-differentiated subspecies have been recognized (Pyle 1997, Clements et al 2016): confluenta, breeding from coastal southwest British Columbia to southwest California, wintering to western Arizona, and neglecta, breeding from interior southern British Columbia to southeast California east to southern Ontario and northwest Louisiana, wintering to southwest California and Mississippi. These subspecies were combined by Jaramillo and Burke (1999) and Gill and Donsker (2017) based on differences being only clinal. We follow the latter authors in considering the species monotypic.
Hybridization occurs between this species and Eastern Meadowlark but is rare; see that species for discussion.
Bruner et al (1904) suggested that Western Meadowlarks from “the lake region of Cherry County” differ in some respects from both Eastern Meadowlarks and Western Meadowlarks from elsewhere in Nebraska, although “the sending of specimens east has so far failed to satisfactorily settle their relationship”. We were unable to find details on these differences; we are unaware of any DNA studies that have included samples from the Nebraska Sandhills population.
Spring: Migration timing is difficult to determine because of the presence of wintering birds, but arrival of migrants is characterized by small flocks of 15-40 birds (“choirs”; Lanny Randolph, Robin Harding, pers. comm.) which begin singing as early as late Jan. There was “multiple singing” in northern Antelope Co 12 Jan 2014, and 31 were singing near Darr, Dawson Co 9 Feb 2003. Far-flung singles calling as far north as Knox Co 14 Feb 1999 and as far west as Scotts Bluff Co 15 Feb 2002, as well as a group of 15 on 4 Feb 2006 may have been early migrants or wintering birds.
- High counts: 551 in Pierce Co 8 May 1999, and 300 along Elm Island Rd, Buffalo Co 13 Mar 2017.
Summer: Western Meadowlark breeds commonly statewide in all types of grasslands and agricultural areas; as many as 2000 were at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 30 Aug 1998. It is least common in the extreme southeast, where Eastern Meadowlark breeds also, and in that area the two species usually segregate into habitats according to moisture, with Western Meadowlark occupying drier habitat than Eastern Meadowlark, although there are areas where the two occur together (Lanyon 1957). Mollhoff (2016) showed statewide distribution, with somewhat fewer reports in the extreme southeast.
- Breeding phenology:
Eggs: 5 Apr-30 Jul
Nestlings: 18 Jun
Fledglings: 19 Sep
Fall: Movement begins in Sep-Oct, when much of the western Sandhills is vacated; by Nov-Dec only wintering birds remain, mostly limited to the south and east (eBird.org, accessed October 2017).
Departure from the state varies from year to year. This is illustrated by a banding recovery in Arkansas 30 Nov 1940 of an individual banded in Lincoln Co, Nebraska 21 Jan 1940. This bird apparently wintered in Nebraska 1939-40, but had already left Nebraska and arrived in Arkansas, some 500 miles to the southeast, by Nov of the subsequent winter.
- High counts: 465 in Garfield Co 2 Oct 2016, 300 at Gibbon, Buffalo Co 25 Oct 1998, and 300 in Garfield Co 12 Oct 2003.
Winter: Western Meadowlark winters over most of the state, although numbers vary considerably from year to year (see Fall) and it may be absent from large parts of the state in some years. CBC data indicate that by late Dec, Western Meadowlarks are still fairly evenly distributed over most of the state; birds per party-hour varies from 1-3 in the north to 101+ in the extreme south (Root 1988).
Highest single location CBC count was 578 at Lincoln in 1972, also the year for the highest total number of Western Meadowlarks on all counts, 1401. This contrasts with the low of only 58 in 1984.
- High counts: (non-CBC): 100+ in Washington Co 24 Jan 2007, and 100 in Dodge Co 22 Dec.
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2016. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2016, accessed 30 January 2018.
Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.
Jaramillo, A., and P. Burke. 1999. New World Blackbirds- The Icterids. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.
Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.
Root, T. 1988. Atlas of wintering North American birds, an analysis of Christmas Bird Count data. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2018. Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org