What is the State Bird of Montana? (And Why?)

Montana is known for its numerous mountain regions. It is the 44th most populous and 4th largest by area in the United States. The state animal for Montana is the Grizzly Bear, but what is the state bird?

In 1931, the state of Montana named its state bird, the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). You can easily spot this meadowlark by its bright colors. Both streaked and spotted, this medium-sized bird seems to consider all that Montana offers from its perch in the state’s open grasslands. The Western meadowlark with its thoughtful, introspective look topped the list of the state’s schoolchildren. You might spot this carnivore noshing on bugs, but it will make do with seeds and berries when it must.

The state bird of Montana, the Western Meadowlark

The state bird of Montana, the Western Meadowlark

Why is the Western meadowlark the state bird for Montana?

The schoolchildren of The Treasure State chose the Western Meadowlark, also known as the wild meadowlark, for its state bird. This bird settled down in Big Sky Country, flitting among its mountains and wilderness, easily discernable with its bright yellow stomach and chest.

When did the Western meadowlark become the state bird for Montana?

The state of Montana waited until 1931 to name its state bird. Once the contest finished and the schoolchildren’s votes counted, the legislature of the state named the bird, making it law on March 14, 1931. Montana shares the Western meadowlark as a state bird with Kansas, Oregon, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

Western Meadowlark in flight

Western Meadowlark in flight

What does the state bird of Montana look like?

If you thought all members of the blackbird family grow solid black feathers, the yellow-breasted feathers and spiky, short tail brightens the pastures and grasslands of Montana.

While some meadowlarks look alike, you can spot this bird in the state by looking for its V-shaped band of black as well as its black and gray beak. This blackbird also features brown and tan feathers marked with black and white.

The Western meadowlark measures 6.5 to 10 inches in length from its head to its tail with a wingspan of up to 16 inches. Despite its physical size, the bird only weighs between three to four ounces.

Western Meadowlark singing loudly, perched on a post

Western Meadowlark singing loudly, perched on a post

How do these birds behave?

Look for meadowlarks during the daytime, their most active period. Unlike some other grassland birds, these birds spend their nights quietly, moving into cover. They do not sing at night. Although they’re ground-dwelling birds, they hide their nests in grasses and sparse shrubs. They still must remain quiet, though since predators could find them by sound. Despite this, they won’t dwell in forests or thick shrubbery. They simply go silent at night.

The coupling of these birds takes some time. The male establishes his breeding ground first. The female birds flock to the various breeding territories and decide on the male based upon his song. The male western meadowlark spends about one month establishing and defending his territory before females arrive. The male meadowlark attracts females using song. When she hears a mating call she likes, the female flies to its source to meet the male. Listen for a flute-like whistle. The female answers a male she likes by cooing “tee-tee-tee.”

Western Meadowlark in the grass

Western Meadowlark in the grass

The male and female mate. She continues to coo as she handles building the nest in which she lays their eggs. Her singing while constructing the nest makes it easy for him to find her to assist with construction. She digs a of four to five inches in depth with a width of two to three inches. It resembles the shape of an orange juice glass, but the axis of the nest can measure seven to eight inches. Filling the nest with grass, dry stems, bits of shrub, the six to eight day construction process ends, and the female lays their eggs.

The female incubates the eggs for 13 to 16 days. The mother bird cares for the baby birds until they mature. They can leave the nest at the age of two weeks. They walk out of the ground-based nest since they can’t fly yet. Their parents continue to look after them as they explore their parent’s breeding grounds. They learn to fly at about five to six weeks of age. Learning flight lets them explore the area past their parent’s breeding area. This lets them establish their own hunting area, and, eventually, their own breeding ground.

Western Meadowlark taking off from tree

Western Meadowlark taking off from tree

Each breeding season, the meadowlark male breeds with two females. Each female constructs her own nest with his breeding grounds and the male bird brings food to both nests. Once the baby birds hatch from the eggs, the doting mom and dad fiercely protect them. He spends time with both of families he fathered. The male contributes to the childrearing.

These birds do not like humans. If a human interacts with their nest, the couple will desert it and the eggs. This makes it imperative to never approach a meadowlark’s nest. Teach your children not to approach their nests either.

If an animal approaches, the male meadowlark noisily chases away the privacy invading offender. The predator could outsize him, but it will not matter. The busy father bird guards both nests to protect his young and spouses.

Looking up in Big Sky country, you can spot a territorial male Western meadowlark guarding its young by perching on electric or telephone wires, fences, or poles. The height of these structures lets the bird survey its breeding ground and quickly spot predators before they could threaten either nest.

Western Meadowlark with a beak full of insects

Western Meadowlark with a beak full of insects

Do Western meadowlarks form communities?

Meadowlarks form nuclear families despite the males having two families. These monogamous birds practice serial monogamy. That means that they mate with one female at a time, but not for life.

They build a nest with each female with which they breed and provide equally for both families. For this reason, the male of this species constantly hunts, dropping off the food at each nest. The female bird feeds their babies.

Only during winter, do the males of this species hunt in a flock; the rest of the year, they hunt alone.

Montana meadowlarks may relocate or migrate. They may also choose to spend their winters in Montana. This depends on the bird. Some of the birds winter in the southern US states, while others fly to Mexico. When the weather warms, these birds may migrate as far north as Canada during late April or early May.

An eastern meadowlark also exists, and the western meadowlark travels as far as its breeding grounds at times. The western and eastern meadowlark will mate when needed, but their offspring will be less virile.

Western Meadowlark foraging on the ground

Western Meadowlark foraging on the ground

What do Western meadowlarks eat?

Meadowlarks vary their diet throughout the year, dining on insects during warm weather, but reverting to berries and grain seeds the rest of the year. Considered a gourmet in the bird community, this blackbird dines of grasshoppers, cutworms, ants, beetles, and other insects. They peck the ground like chickens to dig for a tasty dinner.

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