Eastern vs Western Meadowlark: How to Spot Their Differences

Eastern and western meadowlarks are two distinct species that may look similar to each other at first glance; however, they have unique characteristics that set them apart. Both meadowlarks have beautiful, bright yellow plumage and sport similar markings. But upon closer inspection, there are subtle differences in their physical appearances, songs, and behaviors that make each species distinct from the other. Taking a closer look will help you better understand and appreciate these charming birds and the diverse habitats they inhabit.

The eastern meadowlark is known for its sweet and melodic whistle that echoes through grasslands and farmlands, while the western meadowlark boasts a flute-like song which differs significantly from its eastern counterpart. Additionally, their habitat preferences and behavior exhibit distinct variations. By examining these characteristics, you will be able to confidently differentiate between the two meadowlark species, even though they are sometimes found in overlapping territories.

Key Takeaways:

  • Eastern and western meadowlarks have distinct physical and vocal characteristics to differentiate them.
  • Habitat preferences and behaviors differ between the two species.
  • They can be found in overlapping territories, but careful observation will reveal their unique traits.

Eastern vs Western Meadowlark: Key Differences


In terms of size, both the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks are similar, with an average length of 8.5-10 inches and a wingspan of 13.5-16 inches. The bill is slender with a flat head, but the shape and color pattern of the bill itself can help you tell the two species apart. The Eastern Meadowlark has a more rounded bill than the Western Meadowlark.

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Color and Pattern

The color pattern on the birds’ throats and faces can also help you identify the species. Western Meadowlarks have a higher yellow throat that extends up onto their face, while Eastern Meadowlarks have a white malar region behind the base of their lower mandible. For both sexes, the color pattern of their plumage is quite similar, so other differences should be considered.


Turning your attention to the tail, there are some subtle distinctions between the two species. Western Meadowlarks have paler tails with thinner barring, while Eastern Meadowlarks come with dark centers on their tails and thicker barring on the tail feathers. This difference in the tail feathers can be useful in identification, especially when the birds are in flight.


When perched, you might also notice differences in posture between the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks. Western Meadowlarks tend to have a more round-shouldered posture, whereas Eastern Meadowlarks usually adopt a more upright stance.

Taking into account all these unique physical characteristics, you can now better distinguish between the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks in the field. Remember to pay close attention to the bill shape, throat and face color pattern, tail feathers, and posture while observing these fascinating birds.

Unique Behavioral Differences

When observing the eastern and western meadowlarks, you might notice a few distinctive behaviors that set them apart from one another.

Regarding walking on the ground, both bird species spend a significant amount of time on the ground. However, they may exhibit slight differences in their walking and foraging techniques. The eastern meadowlark is known to cautiously search for food, walking with shorter steps. In contrast, the western counterpart is likely to take longer strides while searching the ground.

As for flight patterns, the eastern and western meadowlarks both have an undulating flight, which means they fly with a series of upward and downward movements. While these patterns may appear similar, the western meadowlark seems to be slightly more agile, maneuvering with ease through their natural habitats.

In terms of courtship behaviors, the eastern and western meadowlarks display unique singing styles. The eastern meadowlark is known for its whistle-like calls, while the western meadowlark produces a flute-like melody. These distinct vocalizations play a crucial role in attracting mates, as their songs not only serve to define their territorial boundaries but also serenade potential partners.

When it comes to feeding behavior, both species share a preference for insects, seeds, and grains. However, the eastern and western meadowlarks may demonstrate slight differences in their foraging techniques. Eastern meadowlarks often pluck insects directly from the ground or vegetation, while the western meadowlarks may snatch them mid-snack from a taller perch.

In summary, while the eastern and western meadowlarks may appear similar in appearance and share overlapping habitats, their unique behavioral differences set them apart from one another. From variations in walking, flight patterns, and courtship to subtle distinctions in feeding behavior, observing these nuances can help you clearly distinguish between these two remarkable species.

Habitat Differences

When it comes to the habitats of Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, you may notice some distinctions despite their similar appearances. Generally speaking, both species can be found in North America’s grassland regions. However, there are specific areas where each species tends to thrive.

Eastern Meadowlarks predominantly inhabit grasslands, prairies, and cultivated fields across the eastern and central parts of North America. These birds are quite adaptable and can make a home in both natural grasslands and human-made environments. As you venture into the Midwest, you’ll have a higher chance of spotting this grassland bird among the sprawling prairies.

On the other hand, Western Meadowlarks inhabit the grasslands of the western and central parts of North America, including the southwestern regions. They also prefer natural grasslands and can be found in the vast expanses of prairies across their range. Furthermore, they have been known to migrate south into Central America during winter months, seeking warmer climates.

So, as you explore the diverse habitats of these grassland birds, you’ll find Eastern Meadowlarks more commonly in the Midwest and southeastern regions, while Western Meadowlarks dominate the western regions and extend into Central America. In areas where the ranges of these species overlap, you might even find both species coexisting, sharing the natural beauty of the grasslands that make up their habitats.

Diet and Feeding Differences

When observing the eating habits of Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, you might notice some similarities and differences between the two species. Their diets mostly consist of insects, but they also consume seeds and waste grain.

In the summer months, both types of meadowlarks feast on a variety of insects like beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, ants, true bugs, and more. They have a preference for snacking on these critters, and as a result, insects make up a large portion of their meals during this time. Alongside these insects, they also eat other invertebrates such as spiders, snails, and sowbugs.

Seeds and waste grain play a notable role in the diet of these birds too, making up around one-third of their annual food intake. They especially enjoy munching on these during the fall and winter months, when insects may be less abundant.

Feeding behaviors between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks are also quite similar. These ground-feeding birds largely forage in fields and meadows for their meals. You might spot them hopping and walking on the ground as they search for insects, seeds, and waste grain to eat.

In addition to diet, be sure to pay attention to the unique songs and physical features of each species, as this can help you distinguish between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks more easily.

Nesting and Breeding Differences

When it comes to nesting and breeding, there are notable differences between the eastern and western meadowlarks. You may find that both species build dome-shaped nests on the ground, often hidden in tall grasses. However, the specific characteristics of their nests and breeding habits differ, leading to the identification of the eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna) and the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) as separate species.

In the case of the eastern meadowlark, their nests are constructed with grasses and leaves lined with soft materials, making it a cozy space for their eggs and young. Western meadowlarks, on the other hand, create nests with dried grasses and weave it into a domed structure to protect their young. Both species are particular about the site selection for nest-building, often staying within their respective habitats of grasslands, prairies, and pastures.

A key difference you’ll notice when observing eggs and hatchlings is the color pattern. Eastern meadowlark eggs have a white background with light brown or purple specks, while western meadowlark eggs possess a similar background but with darker brown markings. The hatchlings, or nestlings, of both species remain in the nest for approximately 10-12 days before they begin exploring beyond their nesting site.

As for the adults during breeding season, you’ll recognize differences in the malar region (the area between the beak and eye) of these two birds. Breeding adult eastern meadowlarks display a bright yellow malar region, while nonbreeding adults don a duller appearance. Conversely, the western meadowlark maintains a vibrant yellow malar region year-round.

Although interbreeding between these two species does occur occasionally, it is rare. This is primarily because their distinct songs and calls act as a barrier, preventing them from successfully attracting mates from the opposite species. Moreover, the differences in their nesting and breeding habits contribute to maintaining them as separate species.

Incubation periods for both eastern and western meadowlarks are quite similar, lasting around 12-15 days. Female adults typically do the incubation, while males contribute by defending the nest and keeping predators at bay. The parents then work together to feed and care for their young until they are old enough to fend for themselves.

Songs and Calls

When comparing the songs and sounds of both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, you’ll notice that they have distinctive differences in their song repertoire and vocalizations. The Eastern Meadowlark produces a variety of song variations, ranging from 50-100 different tunes. On the other hand, the Western Meadowlark’s song repertoire is smaller with only 10-12 song variations. Despite this difference, both species are known for their beautiful, melodious whistles.

The Western Meadowlark’s typical call is a low, bell-like “pluk” or “chupp” sound that you might hear when the bird is disturbed or during courtship and territorial displays. The Eastern Meadowlark, on the other hand, has its own unique set of calls that help differentiate it from its western counterpart.

When you listen for the songs and calls of these two species, paying close attention to the variations and differences can help you identify which type of Meadowlark you are observing. Remember that the Eastern Meadowlark has a larger song repertoire, while the Western Meadowlark often showcases its distinct, bell-like calls.

In summary, discovering the differences between the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks’ songs and calls is a fascinating aspect of birdwatching. While both species possess unique, melodious whistles, the key lies in distinguishing their song variations and vocalizations. By closely listening to their sounds, you can confidently identify and appreciate these charming birds in their natural habitat.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main differences between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks?

The major differences between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks lie in their physical appearance and vocalizations. Eastern Meadowlarks have darker head stripes, a mostly white mustache stripe, and display more white in their tail in flight. On the other hand, Western Meadowlarks have paler tails with thinner barring. Visually identifying them can be challenging, but their songs are quite distinct, making it easier to tell them apart.

How can you distinguish their songs?

Eastern Meadowlarks are known for their clear, sweet, and melodic song, which usually consists of a short series of pure whistles. The Western Meadowlark’s song is louder, more complex, and has a jumble of rich, flute-like notes. Listening to their songs is the best method for distinguishing these two species.

What is the geographical range of each species?

Eastern Meadowlarks can be found across the eastern half of North America, from Canada to Mexico, whereas Western Meadowlarks inhabit the western half of North America, from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast, and down into Mexico. Although their ranges may overlap slightly in some areas, habitat preferences often keep them separate.

Are there variations in their plumages?

Both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks have some variation in plumage across their range, mainly due to different subspecies. These variations can make identification more difficult but aren’t extensive enough to reliably distinguish the two species on their own. Generally, the aforementioned malar stripe and tail differences are the most useful visual cues.

Do Eastern and Western Meadowlarks have similar habitats?

Yes, both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks have similar habitat preferences, such as open grasslands, fields, and meadows. However, each species favors slightly different environments within those habitats. Eastern Meadowlarks are more likely to be found in wetter grasslands and pastures, while Western Meadowlarks tend to inhabit drier grasslands and shrub-steppe environments.

How do their behavior and nesting patterns differ?

Eastern and Western Meadowlarks display similar behavior patterns, such as foraging on the ground for insects and seeds. Their nesting habits are also quite alike; both species construct ground nests concealed by tall grass. However, subtle differences may exist, such as different breeding season timings depending on the location and habitat. To accurately distinguish them, it’s still best to rely on their distinct vocalizations and physical differences.

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