THE first intimation we have in early spring, that the meadow-lark is again with us, comes to us through his soft, sweet, sad note which Van Dyke describes so graphically when he says it "leaks slowly upward from the ground." One wonders how a bird can express happiness in these melancholy, sweet, slurred notes and yet undoubtedly it is a song expressing joy, the joy of returning home, the happiness of love and of nest building. But after one has spent a winter in the Gulf States, and has witnessed the slaughter there of this most valuable bird; and after the northern stomach and heart have turned sick at the sight of breasts once so full of song done brown on the luncheon table, one no longer wonders that the meadow-lark's song of joy is fraught with sadness. There should be national laws to protect the birds that are of value to one part of the United States from being slaughtered in their winter haunts, unless they are there a nuisance and injurious to crops, which is not the case with the meadow-lark.
The meadow-lark, as is indicated by its name, is a bird of the meadow. It is often confused with another bird of the meadow which has very different habits, the flicker. The two are approximately of the same size and color and each has a black crescent or locket on the breast and each shows the "white feather" during flight. The latter is the chief distinguishing character; the outer tail feathers of the meadow-lark are white, while the tail feathers of the flicker are not white at all, but it has a single patch of white on the rump. The flight of the two is quite different. The lark lifts itself by several sharp movements and then soars smoothly over the course, while the flicker makes a continuous up and down, wave-like flight. The songs of the two would surely never be confused, for the meadow-lark is among our sweetest singers, to which class the flicker with his "flick a flick" hardly belongs.
The colors of the meadow-lark are most harmonious shades of brown and yellow, well set off by the black locket on its breast. Its wings are light brown, each feather being streaked with black and brown; the line above the eye is yellow, bordered with black above and below; a buff line extends from the beak backward over the crown. The wings are light brown and have a mere suggestion of white bars; portions of the outer feathers on each side of the tail are white, but this white does not show except during flight. The sides of the throat are greenish, the middle part and breast are lemon-yellow, with the large, black crescent just below the throat. The beak is long, strong and black, and the meadow-lark is decidedly a low-browed bird, the forehead being only slightly higher than the upper part of the beak. It is a little larger than the robin which it rivals in plumpness.
The meadow-lark has a particular liking for meadows which border streams. It sings when on the ground, on the bush or fence and while on the wing; and it sings during the entire period of its northern stay, from April to November, except while it is moulting in late summer. Mr. Mathews, who is an eminent authority on bird songs, says that the meadow-larks of New York have a different song from those of Vermont or Nantucket, although the music has always the same general characteristics. The western species has a longer and more complex song than ours of the East. It is one of the few California birds that is a genuine joy to the eastern visitor; during February and March its heavenly music is as pervasive as the California sunshine.
The nest is built in a depression in the ground near a tuft of grass; it is constructed of coarse grass and sticks and is lined with finer grass; there is usually a dome of grass blades woven above the nest; and often a long, covered vestibule leading to the nest is made in a similar fashion. This is evidently for protection from the keen eyes of hawks and crows. The eggs are laid about the last of May and are usually from five to seven in number; they are white, speckled with brown and purple. The young larks are usually large enough to be out of the way before haying time in July.
The food of the meadow-lark during the entire year consists almost exclusively of insects which destroy the grass of our meadows. It eats great quantities of grasshoppers, cut worms, chinch bugs, army worms, wire worms, weevils, and also destroys some weed seeds. Each pupil should make a diagram in his note-book showing the proportions of the meadow-lark's different kinds of food. This may be copied from Audubon Leaflet No. 3. The killing of the meadow-lark in New York State is a punishable offence, as it should be in every state of the Union. Everyone who owns a meadow should use his influence to the uttermost to protect this valuable bird. It has been estimated that the meadow-larks save, to every township where hay is produced, twenty-five dollars each year on this crop alone.
Leading thought—The meadow-lark is of great value in delivering the grass of our meadows from insect destroyers. It has a song which we all know; it can be identified by color as a large, light brown bird with white feathers on each side of the tail, and in flight, by its quick up and down movements finishing with long, low, smooth sailing.
Method—September and October are good months for observations on the flight, song and appearance of the meadow-lark, and also for learning how to distinguish it from the flicker. The notes must be made by the pupils in the field, and after they know the bird and its song let them, if they have opportunity, study the bird books and bulletins, and prepare written accounts of the way the meadow-lark builds its nest and of its economic value.
1. Where have you seen the meadow-lark? Did you ever see it in the woods? Describe its flight. How can you identify it by color when it is flying? How do its white patches and its flight differ from those of the flicker?
2. Try and imitate the meadow-lark's notes by song or whistle. Does it sing while on the ground, or on a bush or fence, or during flight?
3. Note the day when you hear its last song in the fall and also its first song in the spring. Does it sing during August and September? Why? Where does it spend the winter? On what does it feed while in the South? How are our meadow-larks treated when on their southern sojourn?
4. Is the meadow-lark larger or smaller than the robin? Describe from your own observation, as far as possible, the colors of the meadow-lark as follows: Top of head; line above the eye; back; wings; tail; throat; breast; locket; color and shape of beak. Make a sketch of your own or a copy from Louis Fuertes' excellent picture of the meadow-lark in the Audubon Leaflet, and color it accurately.
5. When is the nest built; where is it placed; of what material is it built? How is it protected from sight from above? Why this protection? How many eggs? What are their colors and markings?
6. What is the food of the meadow-lark? Copy the diagram from the Audubon leaflet, showing the proportions of the different kinds of insects which it destroys. Why should the farmers of the South also protect the meadow-lark by law?
Supplementary reading—Audubon Education Leaflet No. 3; Farmers' Bulletin No. 54, U. S. Dept. of Agr.; "A Pioneer," in Nestlings of Forest and Marsh, Wheelock.