Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Reader Asks, "Could It Be a Meadowlark Nest?"

Photograph by Donegal Browne

Could that be a Meadowlark nest? The first thing I thought of when I saw "the little house" was of an Oven-bird nest. Which I immediately discounted as yes, they are ground nesters but no, their nests aren't made of grass They're made of mud. And the longer I stared at it the more open my mind became to the possibility of any living thing that could fit through the door being a possible occupant.
I know one is supposed to have an open mind, but let that be a lesson to me, follow the first hunch up at least a little, before opening one's mental forum to any living thing that can fit in the door.

Photograph Courtesy of The National Park Service
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna
Thankfully the questioner brought me back to a bird nest and IS it a Meadowlark nest? That's a question I can handle.

As a child I remember Meadowlarks vividly singing on any available platform. But when I thought about it, I hadn't seen one in ages.

What about Meadowlarks, anyway?

The Peterson Field Guide, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, Fifth Edition says,

"9 in. In grassy country, a chunky, brown, starling-shaped bird. When flushed, shows a conspicuous patch of white on each side of its short tail. Several shallow, jerky wing beats alternate with short glides. When bird perches on a post, chest shows bright yellow crossed by a black V. Walking it flicks its tail open and shut. Note: Yellow of throat does not invade lower cheek behind bill.
VOICE: Song unlike flutelike gurgling of Western Meadowlark, is composed of 2 clear, slurred whistles, musical and pulled out, tee-yah, tee-tair (last note slurred and descending) Note, a rasping or buzzy dzrrt, also a gutteral chatter.
RANGE: Se. Canada to Brazil.
HABITAT: Grasslands, cultivated fields and pastures, meadows, prairies."

9 inches and Starling shaped? It could fit through the door. It's within the species range and the little house certainly was in a prairie so habitat fits too.

Alright what does a Meadowlark nest look like. I start to search.

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Museum
The Harvard Museum has a complete collection of North American nests and eggs. Unfortunately what they have doesn't match what I have in my photo at all. My nest has live stems of grass growing up through the nest. Then again this particular nest was collected in 1911 and it's been sitting in an archival glass box ever since. It isn't exactly situated as the Meadowlark built it, which could make a big difference. What should a Meadowlark nest look like?

Which took me to the bookshelf again for The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Which in turn took me to the section Blackbirds, Orioles, and Allies, Family Icteridae, Order Passeriformes and a watercolor of a Western Oriole nest. No living grass incorporated to anchor it down, though the painting does show grass growing in front and in back of the nest flush with the it. And in this image it is as if the Harvard image is now, up laying on it's side. Interesting. This is an example of why seeing a nest in the field or at least a photograph or a drawing of a nest in it's original position and setting is so important.

Glancing down the page I notice a thumbnail drawing of a Western Meadowlark, head down, beak stretched very wide ...

The Caption Read:
"Western Meadowlark 'gaping.' Icterids have complex bill musculature that allows them to force the bill open with considerable strength. This enables the bill to be inserted into the ground or among grass stems, then opened prying apart the sub-strate. (Basically substrate in this case is the dried grass and other material on a prairie between the dirt itself and the air. D. B.) While this happens the eyes rotate slightly forward and the birds can see directly between their jaws into the hole they have created."

Wow, who knew? "Gaping". Fascinating adaptation that.

What does the US Geographical Survey say? They've been helpful before.

"The Eastern Meadowlark is a short distance migrant that breeds in grassland habitat. It is a ground or low nesting bird with a diet consisting primarily of insects and lesser quantities of seeds.

The Eastern Meadowlark is very similar to the Western Meadowlark. where their ranges overlap, they are separated by voice. Western Meadowlark has yellow throat extending slightly farther into face than Eastern. Male Dickcissel is much smaller with a conical bill and lacks white in the tail."

But is this a Meadowlark's nest?

WAIT! What's this?

Photograph courtesy of the United States Geographical Survey
Bingo! Look up at my photograph of the Janesville nest. Live grasses poke through stabilizing it. The door is the same and of comparable size. Substrate is very similar in composition and position.

To my mind these nests belong to the same species of Bird.

Yes, astute reader, that nest belongs to an Eastern Meadowlark!

Donegal Browne

No comments: