Five years ago, United States Fish and Wildlife (USFW) supported the prairie restoration project at Viking Middle School. This year USFW requested a bird survey to see what species are represented in the prairie. Cathy Olyphant of the St. Croix Valley Bird Club conducted two surveys and 17 different bird species were observed. Especially exciting was the observation of 5 Eastern Meadowlarks, a species of primary concern to USFW because of their rapidly declining numbers.
Meadowlarks are not actually larks but are related to blackbirds. With their distinctive yellow breast marked with a bold black V, this chunky songbird is easily identified. Their back is brown streaked with black and white to camouflage it from predators while searching for food (grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars and grubs) as it stalks through tall grasses. Meadowlarks proclaim their presence from the top of fence posts or other elevated perches with a cheerful flutelike whistle.
These ground nesters look for dense cover and a hollow depression to build their nest. The females weave the nest together using dead grasses, plant stems and even strips of bark. The nest is elaborate and has a woven roof and tunnels leading to and from it. The young leave the nest at about 12 days unable to fly, the parents continue to care for them for two more weeks. The Eastern Meadowlarks observed at Viking are a family unit, two parents and three youngsters.
Eastern Meadowlarks loved small family farms that had pastureland and grassy fields. As more and more row crops are planted and development continues, their habitat is shrinking. The birds need about 6 acres of meadow, prairie, pasture, open field or tall grassy areas to establish their territory. It is estimated that 95 percent of their habitat is on private land which means how we live, and farm makes a huge difference for these birds. The prairie at Viking is about 5 acres and is bordered on the south by some additional tall grass at the First Baptist Church plus an adjacent Amish pasture so Eastern Meadowlarks can establish territories there. How can you help this species survive? If you live in the country, perhaps you and your neighbors can decide to mow less. Mowing the ditches on your property after August 1st gives the birds a chance to raise their young. As a farmer, perhaps you have some acreage that just isn’t as productive as the rest, allowing it to revert to grass would be helpful too.