What is the State Bird of North Dakota? (And Why?)

Although North Dakota is the 19th largest state by area, it's only the 4th most populous, which means its a fairly sparse. The majority of the land is covered by grassland, with a fair bit being farmland. So, what is the state bird for North Dakota?

The state of North Dakota went without a state bird until 1947 when it chose the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). From the state’s prairies and buttes, this vibrantly hued, medium-sized surveys the landscape, watching for food and predators that could create danger for it.

While this bird populates many states and migrates between states in some cases, in North Dakota, it remains within the state’s borders.

Although related to the eastern meadowlark, the two birds’ songs sound different, so familiarity with the eastern meadowlark song doesn’t mean you will recognize the sound of this bird’s song.

The state bird of North Dakota, the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

The state bird of North Dakota, the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

Why is the Western meadowlark the state bird for North Dakota?

The Peace Garden State chose its state bird for its loyalty to the state. It nestles among the grasslands and never migrates from the state. Also known as the wild meadowlark, you can spot it quite easily due to its vivid yellow chest and stomach.

When did the Western meadowlark become the state bird for North Dakota?

Although it earned statehood in 1889, the state of North Dakota waited until 1947 to name its state bird. Its legislature adopted the bird as the state bird in a resolution, and it appears in the North Dakota Century Code, Title 54, Chapter 2, Section 54-02-06. North Dakota shares the Western meadowlark as a state bird with Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

Western Meadowlark taking off for flight from a post

Western Meadowlark taking off for flight from a post

What does the state bird of North Dakota look like?

Viewed from the front, the western meadowlark appears bright yellow with a white head and a V-shaped black band around its neck. However, when viewed from behind, this blackbird family member appears spotted and speckled with gray and black on tan and brown feathers with white tail feathers.

From the side view, the bird flourishes its yellow, white, and gray/black markings as well as showcasing its short, spiky tail. The beak of the western meadowlark grows pointy, sharp, and black with gray.

Typically weighing between three to four ounces, this blackbird measures from 6.5 to 10 inches in length from head to tail. Its typical wingspan measures 16 inches.

Perched Western Meadowlark

Perched Western Meadowlark

How do these birds behave?

While the Sturnella neglecta always makes its home on the ground, in North Dakota, it camouflages its nest, so you need to be careful where you step when you hike. You could easily miss spotting this bird’s nest, and accidently stepping on it and its eggs. The meadowlark constructs its nest with a complex tunnel entry and a grass roof, so it blends into the rest of the field. Forget night hiking which makes it tougher to spot these nests since the birds go silent at night.

Meadowlarks enjoy daytime activity but at night, go into hiding quietly to avoid predators. Because they nest on the ground, predators can easily reach them. They enjoy their life in grasses and sparse shrubs though and prefer not to move to forests or thick shrubs. When they have laid their eggs, they become fiercely protective of them.

Western Meadowlark foraging for food on the ground

Western Meadowlark foraging for food on the ground

This changes though if a human approaches their nest because the touch of a human to their abode causes them to desert it. They will leave their eggs unhatched in the nest, considering them contaminated by humans.

Their dating and mating protocols prove complex. The male western meadowlark searches for an appropriate breeding territory then defend it for about a month before the arrival of females.

The male sings to attract females as potential mates. It tweets a song that sounds like a flute. This whistling song attracts females who consider the bird and his territory. If he did choose well, the female, upon liking his song will investigate the potential nesting sites. The male bird waves to females he wishes to attract.

When the female finds a suitable area among those available in the breeding territory, she begins nest construction while her mate stands guard and handles food hunting and gathering. She sings a “tee-tee-tee” call while constructing the nest, which takes six to eight days.

Close up of a Western Meadowlark singing

Close up of a Western Meadowlark singing

As part of this construction, the birds devote time to cleaning the items that go into their nest. The female excavates a hole about two to three inches wide with a depth of four to five inches and a nest axis of about seven to eight inches.

Once dug, the female western meadowlark undertakes the mission of filling the shallow nest with bedding materials of grasses, bits of shrubs, and dry stems. She also covers the nest with grasses and builds the tunnel for entry.

Once completing the construction, the meadowlark couple enter, copulate, and the female lays the eggs. She also incubates the eggs for a period of 13 to 16 days, while the male handles all homecare.

Once hatched, the baby birds still need parental care for a few weeks. Their parents fiercely protect them. The male meadowlark may breed with two females per season, but these busy dads care for both families.

They guard both nests and hunt for and deliver food to both nests. They spend equal time with each brood and spouse. and spend time with both of their families, contributing to the rearing of the chicks. Regardless of the predator type or size, the male of this bird will noisily chase away any threat to its spouses or young.

While hiking in North Dakota, look up during the day to spot the territorial male western meadowlark. The male perches on poles, fences, electric wires, and telephone wires to view its breeding territory and protect all nests simultaneously.

Western Meadowlark on the ground

Western Meadowlark on the ground

Do Western meadowlarks form communities?

Initially, the male meadowlark forms a nuclear family with its first mate of the breeding season. It soon forms a second nuclear family though. The western meadowlark practices serial monogamy. The males maintain a separate domicile with each spouse.

In order to provide equally for both families, the male of this species hunts constantly. As they capture food, they drop it off at each nest. The female bird feeds the baby birds. These baby birds move out of their parents’ homes once they learn to fly at age five to six weeks. They start exploring the breeding territory at two weeks of age though, striking out on foot.

Once they can fly, they each establish their own hunting area. During warm weather, these birds hunt alone, but this changes during winter when they hunt in a small flock.

The western meadowlark living in other states may relocate, but the North Dakota birds love their adopted home. Typically a migratory bird, others of this species winter in the southern US states and Mexico. During warm weather though, they may fly as far north as Canada. Those living in North Dakota will merely fly from one area of the state to the other.

Western Meadowlark flying through the sky

Western Meadowlark flying through the sky

What do Western meadowlarks eat?

Western meadowlarks enjoy a diet largely of bugs. Considered a carnivore, it will willingly dine on berries and seeds when needed. Their diet rotates, consisting of grain seeds and grain during winter and early spring, but weed seeds during fall.

Spring and summer provide a series of gourmet treats for this bird when it can readily find ants, cutworms, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects abundantly in North Dakota.

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