For the Birds Radio Program: Meadowlarks

Original Air Date: Aug. 23, 1999

One formerly abundant bird that is declining now is deeply missed by a great many people.

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The human imagination is filled with sights and sounds of birds, from angels with feathered wings to ravens grimly foretelling death and owls carrying spirits to the great beyond. In the book and movie both, Bambi’s first word is “bird,” and my daughter Katie’s second word, after “mama,” was “boo jay.” When I was very small, my family lived in a two-flat apartment in Chicago overlooking the river, and I remember kneeling backwards on the sofa to watch for the drawbridge to go up. Whenever it did, pigeons flew up in to the blue sky, and I longed to fly with them.

Many people have vivid childhood memories of birds. When I teach Elderhostel classes or talk at retirement or nursing homes, older people often tell me their childhood memories of birds. Some are terrifying, like butchering a chicken or being startled by a bird suddenly loose in the house. Some are pleasant and sweet, such as whistling back and forth with a cardinal or listening to House Sparrows cheeping comfortably at sunset like happy children telling their mother the fun things they did all day. People who grew up on or near farms remember meadows filled with bird song, and the one bird they tell me about more than any other—the song they treasure more than any other—is the meadowlark.

There are two kinds of meadowlarks, and they look pretty much the same. As we drive down a country road, we might see them on a fence or power line—blackbird sized with a short tail and yellow underside with a bold black V on the breast. If they take off, we can see the white outer tail feathers, too. But as pretty as meadowlarks are, it’s when they sing that we recognize which is which. And when people tell me they miss the song of the meadowlark from their childhood, I know exactly which meadowlark they’re talking about. It’s not that the Eastern Meadowlark doesn’t have a pretty song—it’s a clear, simple whistled melody.

But the song of the Western Meadowlark is melodic and bubbly, rich with the warmth and bounty of a summer’s day. Small wonder that the Western Meadowlark was chosen to be the state bird of Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming, while no state in the union chose the Eastern Meadowlark.

It’s comforting to think that the birds we treasured in our childhood are still singing somewhere. Unfortunately, meadowlarks have declined seriously throughout their range in the past decades. They nest on the ground in large expanses of grassland, and so are victims of habitat loss, pesticides, farmers’ cats, and mowing. Without a single cause of their decline, no one takes the blame, and right now little is being done to help them. Children of the nineties are growing up without an abundance of meadowlark songs to enrich their lives and give them warm and beautiful memories of childhood. We tripe about kids of the nineties and how violent and destructive they are, but we adults are the ones who teach them what to treasure and value. We’re the ones who produce or bankroll the violent movies and videos that they watch, and we’re the ones who let what should be some of the loveliest treasures of childhood dwindle away. Let’s protect grassland birds, like meadowlarks, to ensure that they will provide memories for our grandchildren as well as our grandparents.