Birds in the Grasslands

Red-winged Blackbird calling on pokeweed
It’s exciting to walk through Meadowlark Meadow now because of all the birds who live there. Red-winged Blackbirds, in particular, are everywhere – calling loudly to protect their territories from other Blackbirds, and from people. Why do they think people are a threat?

Red-winged Blackbird Female 2
The beautiful brown females build nests in the grass, and if people walk through the tall grass instead of staying on the mowed paths, we might step on their nests. So even the females fly up into the air squawking loudly, if someone gets too close. The first time I saw a female, I thought it was the biggest sparrow in the world!

The males mate with several females in the same season, so he has to guard against other male Blackbirds in his territory. Studies have shown, though, that not all the young in a nest have the same father. Apparently he is right to be so protective!

Purple Martin - long wings
This summer we have some new avian residents in the meadow. The guys moved one of our Purple Martin houses here from another location in the Preserve, and at least two Martins seem to like it. Look at his long wings and forked tail. He is dark purple all over, so it’s easy to tell the Martin from a Tree Swallow, which has a white belly. Swallows and Martins fly over the meadow looking for bugs. They really appreciate it when someone mows the soccer fields, since that stirs up a banquet of insects for them.

Purple Martin Female in Nest Box
The female Martin is checking out one of the apartments in the building to see if it meets her requirements. Usually Martins nest in colonies, with many couples in the same area. There is safety in numbers, right? They have to protect their nests from House Sparrows, which will throw Martin eggs and chicks out to take over the nest site. Sometimes, even owls will reach into the box and grab the babies.

Meadowlark in Green Grass Singing
Our course, we always listen for the liquid song of the Eastern Meadowlark. Plain brown on the back, he can be difficult to see until he turns around. When the sun shines on his golden yellow breast and black ascot, you wonder how in the world you could have missed him before. The female Meadowlark also builds her nest in the grass, and faces the same dangers all ground nesters. Why don’t they nest in trees where it’s safer? That’s hard to say. Somehow in their evolutionary development, they decided that the thick grass provided plenty of hiding space, as long as a buffalo didn’t step on you!