Today’s factory farming of chicken broilers occurs inside sleek, white Quonset hut-type structures. The chicken house we were looking at this afternoon was definitely from an earlier era. It was made of wood, and it was caving in on itself. The long, gray, weathered walls undulated, revealing the condition of the rotting timbers inside. Here and there the roof had collapsed, allowing the late summer sun to illuminate the decay within.
The open space in front of the coop was overgrown with meadow grasses and chickweed. We watched a flock of busy grassland birds probe the soil with their long sharp bills. The birds were half-hidden in the long grasses, but their constant movements in search of insects made them easy enough to follow.
Something spooked the flock, and it exploded in a swirling mass of rapidly beating wings. While on the ground, the birds showed an effective camouflage of browns and blacks. Aloft, the bright yellow undersides flashed into view. A sleek black “V” emblazoned every breast.
Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) are about the size of a robin, but noticeably stockier. In spite of their name, they are members of the blackbird/oriole family (Icterid), not true larks (Alaudidae).
These birds are mostly brown on top and yellow below. The meadowlark’s definitive black “V” chest wedge stands in striking contrast to the bright yellow throat and body. Meadowlarks have a black eye stripe, white eyebrow and black crown. The bird’s cheeks are white while breeding, but pale buff the rest of the year. White tail edges are noticeable.
The sexes look alike, although the females tend to be slightly smaller and more drab overall than males.
In the field, they are almost indistinguishable from the western meadowlark. Distinctive voices are the best way to tell the two meadowlark species apart in the wild. The eastern’s song is a sweet, lazy, slurred whistle. Males can use the same basic notes to form as many as 100 different songs.
The range of the eastern meadowlark stretches from California to Texas, then expands throughout the Southeast United States and up into Pennsylvania and New Jersey. During breeding season, some of these short-distance migrants will move up into the Great Lakes and New England. The western meadowlark is mostly limited to areas west of the Mississippi. The birds we see in the Chesapeake basin are almost certainly eastern meadowlarks.
As we had witnessed, the birds prefer open fields and grasslands. Females build the nests on the ground. They will lay two to seven eggs in a clutch and may produce two broods annually.
Incubation takes two weeks, but the chicks only need another 10 days to finish their nestling period. Males have two mates at a time, while the busy females are monogamous.
Meadowlarks love natural prairie grasses or abandoned agricultural fields. Their diet consists almost exclusively of insects from the spring through the fall. In winter, when insects are scarce, meadowlarks will add seeds, corn and wild fruit to their diet.
The birds need a relatively large patch of grassland for their habitat. Ornithologists say that meadowlarks need about six acres at a minimum to be successful. On today’s massive farms, monoculture crops tend to be planted on every available acre. Abandoned farm land and unused plots that are common on the smaller family farms of the Chesapeake region are more likely to support meadowlarks. Still, the loss of habitat is telling. Audubon estimates that the population of eastern meadowlarks has dropped 70 percent since the 1970s.
The tale is a familiar one. The number of eastern meadowlarks is large enough to keep them off the threatened and endangered lists. But the awe-inspiring abundance of these grassland birds is a thing of the past. Like the Chesapeake’s oysters, river herring and many species of migrating ducks, eastern meadowlarks are victims of the slow-motion tragedy of habitat loss and inevitable massive population decline.
The meadowlarks we had just witnessed had no knowledge of such population dynamics, of course. They had found a comfortable ecological niche and were happy to fit themselves in.
As I stood looking at the dilapidated chicken house, I could envision a more vital time when it stood strong and served an important function on a small farm. Likewise, the beautiful flock of meadowlarks provided a hint of their former glorious abundance.
The afternoon sunlight revealed the fragile backbone of the chicken house. And when I looked beyond the façade, I could foresee a future of diminished vitality and numbers. For the meadowlarks, it is a tale of inexorable decline. For this birder, it foretold a future of diminished vitality. And that knowledge somehow sweetened the experience and reinforced the importance of the fierce immediacy of now.