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Larks and Meadowlarks
Nature Bulletin No. 195-A   June 5, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

LARKS AND MEADOWLARKS
Our common names for many birds are confusing. Our robin is really a thrush Its young have speckled breasts like other thrushes, including the bluebird. The European robin belongs to a different family and is a much smaller bird with a brighter orange-red breast. The English sparrow is not a sparrow. Our native sparrows belong to the Finch family which includes the cardinal, grosbeak, towhee, crossbills, buntings and finches. These misleading common names probably originated from resemblances to birds our early colonists had known in Europe.

The Meadowlark is not a lark at all, although it nests on the ground in lark-fashion, but is close kin to the bobolinks, orioles and blackbirds. The Horned lark is the only American member of the lark family, otherwise found in northern Europe, Africa, Asia and India. To that family belongs the poet's bird, the Skylark, of which Shakespeare wrote: "Hark! hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings." The second stanza of Shelley's Ode to a Skylark -- which begins: "Hail to thee, blithe spirit ! " -- is typical.

Higher still and higher,
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Actually the song of the skylark cannot compare with the jingling joyous melody of our Bobolink. It is remarkable because the lark sings as it rises upward, upward, until it is high in the sky. Our horned larks do the same thing but not as well. The woodcock and the ovenbird do it as well or better.

The meadowlark might better be called the "meadow starling". It has a chunky body with a short tail, similar to the starling; walks instead of hopping or running like so many birds; and its low flight consists of several short rapid wing-beats alternating with short periods of sailing. It is a bird of the open, found only in meadows, fields and prairies. If you flush a good-sized brown-streaked bird that flashes white on each side of its short tail as it flutters and sails away, that is a meadowlark. If it perches on a fence-post or a telephone wire, you may see that it has a bright yellow breast with a broad black crescent below the throat.

Sometimes a few meadowlarks remain in our northern states all winter, but most of them migrate southward, congregating in late summer in small straggling flocks. It is one of the first birds to return in March and then we hear its guttural chattering call and its musical song. It builds its nest on the ground among dense grass or weeds: a loosely-built domed-over structure of grass and plant stems, so cleverly concealed you rarely find one unless the mother bird goes fluttering out beneath your feet. Meadowlarks are friends of the farmer because they feed on harmful insects such as grasshoppers, crickets and beetles, and on weed seeds.

There are two kinds of meadowlarks, both found in Illinois and difficult to tell apart. The Western Meadowlark appears lighter in color than the Eastern Meadowlark, and the yellow extends up onto the cheeks, but the principal difference is in their calls and songs. The song of the latter is a strident slurring whistle something like: "tee- yah, tee-hy-a-air". The song of its western cousin is longer, louder, lower-pitched melody of 6 or 7 notes with a clear bubbling quality.

A day in the woods and fields can also be a lark.


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