Western Meadowlark: Songbird of the Vast Grasslands

Updated: Jun. 12, 2024

Learn what a western meadowlark looks like and sounds like and where birders can find this large, colorful songbird.

What Does a Western Meadowlark Look Like?

Western meadowlark singingScott Smith/Getty Images
A western meadowlark has bright yellow breast and a black chest patch.

Juli Bosmoe, senior range ecologist for Audubon Great Falls in Fargo, North Dakota, points out that the easiest feature to spot on the western meadowlark is the yellow breast with a v-shaped black bib. She also says to look for the white outer tail feathers that flash when the bird flushes from a perch.

Around the size of a robin, Juli says, “They’re big for a songbird, for sure.” They also have long, slender bills.

Adult males and females look similar. Immature birds are paler in color.

Did you know: Despite having lark in their name, these birds are related to blackbirds.


western meadowlarkCourtesy Jay Styles
Six states named the western meadowlark their state bird.

“They prefer grasslands without trees that are encroaching because these provide a perch for predator birds,” says Juli.

Throughout the year, they inhabit the a large portion of the western U.S., from southern Nebraska to the West Coast, and south into Mexico. In summer, their reach extends into Canada, Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

These birds are late early spring and late fall migrants.

Check out more yellow and black birds you should know.

What Do Western Meadowlarks Eat?

western meadowlarkCourtesy Ted Kyster
Western meadowlark eating an insect

“During the breeding season they like insects the most. It’s a lot of good energy in a small package,” explains Juli. “Outside of the breeding season they’re more likely to be eating seeds, which is why it’s important to have these diverse grasslands.”

Even though they do consume seeds as part of their diet, she notes, “They’re not going to be your backyard feeder bird.” Juli says of one of their favorite ways to find their seeds is by sticking their beaks in a cow pie to get out the seeds.

The ideal habit for western meadowlarks is an expansive grassland with diverse grassland species, but there are many instances where development or agricultural practices reduce these food options for the birds.

“If the grassland is stagnant, it’s just going to turn into a lot of older grasses,” she says. “It is typically invaded by smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass.” One of the best ways we can support these grassland birds is to keep our own backyards as diverse as possible with native grasses.

Nesting Habits

Meadowlark,nestMika Skye/Shutterstock
Female western meadowlarks construct dome-shaped structures on the ground for their nests before laying five to six eggs inside.

“The male mates with more than one female, but it may be only two,” notes Juli.

They are very territorial during the breeding season, using their calls to woo a female, as well as ward off intruders.

“They have great, hidden nests,” she explains. The female gathers all of the materials and builds the nest, which is positioned on the ground, often near a bunch of grasses or placed within a depression. Built of grasses and dried forbs, the six to seven-inch diameter nest blends perfectly with the surrounding vegetation.

“The female will tuck grasses over the top,” she says, and camouflage roof makes them nearly impossible to see, even when you’re looking for them.

“(Western) meadowlarks usually have two breeds year, and the female takes care of the young,” says Juli.

The five to six white eggs per clutch are heavily spotted with lavender, brown or rust markings, which adds to their concealment qualities. It requires 13 to 16 days for them to hatch, and the young leave the nest after 10 to 18 days.

Western Meadowlark Song/Calls

western meadowlarkCourtesy Jake Bonello
These birds are known for their musical song.

Their distinctive, remarkably loud song makes western meadowlarks unmistakable. “To me, that’s one of the key features, of how loud they are. You could be driving down the gravel road with the windows up, and you can still hear them,” Juli says.

“(Males) really like a post to sit on, such as fences or barbed wired, to sing for the ladies,” says Juli. “They have a whole repertoire of songs because the males are trying to attract the females. They can have 100 different variations. The females judge them on their songs.”

Sometimes described as “flute-like,” their songs and calls vary with whistles, gurgles and warbling sounds. But once you hear it, you recognize it immediately.

Bird sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

Western Meadowlark vs Eastern Meadowlark

eastern meadowlarkCourtesy Andy Raupp
Despite its name, the eastern meadowlark is not in the lark family, but is instead in the blackbird family.

As far as the eastern meadowlark goes, Juli points out that essentially the two species look alike. One of the differences with the eastern meadowlark is a whitish mustache stripe on the face, but this is a detail that someone has to look closely to determine.

Juli says, “You’re not likely to see a hybrid because they’re so territorial.”

An easier way to tell the difference between these birds is by listening to them sing.

“The eastern meadowlark’s song is a lot different,” she says.

About the Expert

Juli Bosmoe has been with Audubon Great Plains since 2019, and focuses heavily on the working range lands of the eastern parts of North and South Dakota. She earned a bachelor of science degree in wildlife and fisheries management at South Dakota State University.