What Happened to the Western Meadowlark?
by Kevin Baird, EDN
In 1927 school children across the state of Oregon voted the Western Meadowlark to be the state bird. Children liked the meadowlark because of its striking appearance, its pretty song, and its common presence in meadows and prairies. Nowadays the state bird has nearly vanished in the valleys west of the cascades. Younger generations are wondering what the bird looks like and older generations are wondering what happened to it.
Mary James, a native of Eugene and outdoor enthusiast said, “We used to have a lot of meadowlarks when I was growing up, but now we don’t see them hardly ever any more. It makes me very sad.”
In 2009 the Lincoln Star Journal reported that in the United States grassland bird populations have declined 40 percent over the last 40 years. Western Meadowlarks are grassland birds, and in areas like the Willamette Valley their population decline has been more dramatic.
Oregon’s state bird is characterized by its bright yellow belly and throat; it also bears a black “V” shape across its chest. It’s back is brown and is covered in black speckles. It is also revered as a beautiful song-bird.
Meadowlark habitat consists of wide-open prairie and grasslands with no trees. Matt Benotsch, a land steward at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) said, “Woodlands are not suitable habitats for meadowlarks. They don’t feel safe near the trees because of predators.” Matt explained that aside from trees, woody vegetation scares the meadowlarks too. “Blackberries would be a prime example. Blackberries are everywhere in the Willamette Valley. If you have a big blackberry patch, a meadowlark isn’t going to want to be anywhere near it.”
Prior to American settlement in the valleys in western Oregon, Native Americans used controlled burns to facilitate hunting and to keep the prairies open so they could plant and eat their crops. This kept trees and other woody vegetation from encroaching on prairies. The prairies were the perfect habitat and Western Meadowlarks flourished.
Those native ecosystems have been nearly obliterated. 98 to 99.5 of all pre- settlement meadowlark habitats have been destroyed and the meadowlark population has gone down with their habitats.
Urban sprawl and agricultural development has covered all the land in the valleys. Trees and other woody vegetation like blackberries have covered up the remaining grasslands. Restoring the native prairie ecosystems to Western Oregon isn’t as easy as it sounds. Nearly every bit of land that could possibly be used is privately owned.
For the last few decades TNC has been purchasing land from private owners and restoring prairie ecosystems to western Oregon. When land purchases are not possible conservation easements have been made. Willow Creek Park in Eugene is a successful example of how TNC has created a habitat for meadowlarks to live and breed in.
TNC’s most recent acquisition is a large parcel of land near Mount Pisgah at the confluence of the Middle and Coast Forks of the Willamette River. The land purchase cost millions of dollars, which was granted to TNC by the Bonneville Power Administration. A portion of the land will be restored to a native prairie ecosystem, which will provide a small breeding ground for meadowlarks. The process will take 10 to 15 years. When the process is complete they plan on turning the property over to an unidentified public land agency.
A new bill proposed in the 2011 Oregon State Legislative session could possibly expedite the restoration and rejuvenation of the state bird.
The Wild Bird Conservation act, House Bill 3374, has been proposed in the 2011 legislative session. If the bill passes all wild-bird seed sold in Oregon retail stores will be taxed at 5 cents per pound. The money that the tax generates, which the Audobon Society (who is a large supporter of the bill) projects to be approximately 2 million dollars a year, will then be appropriated to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). The ODFW will then use the funds for habitat restoration, monitoring bird species, outreach programs, and other collaborative conservation efforts in both urban and non-urban landscapes.
Not all of the money generated by the Wild Bird Conservation Act will go towards meadowlark restoration, but meadowlarks are a high conservation priority for the ODFW. Therefore it can be assumed that moneys from this tax will go towards helping the meadowlark.
Opinions vary as to whether this tax will be effective. Carol Houk is a self-proclaimed bird lover who has a birdfeeder and enjoys feeding birds in her back yard. She has a different take on the tax. “Even though it’s painful and I don’t want to spend the money, it’s for a good cause. If it’s going to help with habitat restoration for birds, I’m all for it.”
She also thinks that the tax will fix a flaw that she sees in the conservation system, “Hunters pay a lot of fees for big game and waterfowl, which goes towards conservation. Songbirds don’t have anything that supports or pays for keeping the bird’s population stable.”
Long time bird watching fanatic, John Sullivan, is skeptical of the tax. “My concern with it is making sure the money goes to the right place.” John would much rather donate money to the Audobon Society or TNC.
Regardless of their opinions on taxes bird lovers can agree that efforts should be made to increase meadowlark populations.
“People should know that they’re there and that they’re in trouble.” Sullivan said. “They’re a gorgeous bird.”