The Meadowlark

Spring doesn’t come early at 54 degrees N.   Conventional wisdom dictates the children don’t go swimming in the lakes until Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24.   The snow might have disappeared in late March or early April but the spring sun takes its good time to warm the earth, pussy willows notwithstanding.   Yet the advent of spring on the Canadian prairie is still a time of celebration

In the 1950’s, there were no spring festivals like those celebrated in Europe.  Perhaps people were too busy trying to survive the harsh climate to afford any frivolous celebrations of spring.   Prairie celebrations were more subdued.   Spring will come but the Earth at this latitude won’t make it a smooth arrival.

First, the snow must melt.  Water begins to pool on ponds.  Miniature rivers begin running on the streets of towns, the melt seeking bottomland.  Young boys patrol these small streams watching their imaginary ships of popsicle sticks as they sail on.

People are seen to walk slightly more upright, no longer bent over by the cold. End of season bonspiels are held, trophies handed out.  Hockey playoffs are rushed in contests with crumbling ice.  Jacket zippers sometimes lounge half closed.  Rubber boots replace galoshes.  Conversations can be heard on a walk down Main Street. Store windows are washed.  People look at the sky again and discuss clouds. Farmers urge their fields to dry quickly. Nature intrudes  . . . .

Everybody waits to hear the first robin but it’s more likely a returning crow will beat him to it.   But there’s no magic to a “caw”, only a welcome familiarity, and the song of the robin remains the one everyone wants to hear.  Fat buds appear overnight on willows and poplars.  The unbroken brown and grey of the landscape is first  broken on the railroad right-of-ways where the close-cropped grasses, burnt twice a year to prevent runaway grass fires, turn a vivid green and invite crocuses to make a brief and colorful appearance.   This pleasing sight will disappear when the age of the steam engine is eclipsed by diesel locomotives.

Young boys and their dogs watch the countryside and know when it’s okay to hike the fields again, maybe to play catch, maybe to hunt gophers, maybe simply to leave footprint on the grass.   And they’re waiting to hear a song.

And what a song it is.   It’s the song of the Western Meadowark, a beautiful melody that strains the ear’s talent to appreciate spectacular originality, a song far too complex to be imitated or even translated into a gibberish-type English. 

The boys smile at one another when they hear the first one.  They see the bird sitting atop a fence post.  A nesting pair has returned to this field. As they did the year before. Spring hasarrived

In the 1950’s, the meadowlark (there are eastern and western meadowlarks on the North American prairie but the latter is more prevalent) was relatively common. Mating pairs (or sometimes trios when the male attracts two females) make their nest on the ground.  There is very little difference between the eastern and western meadowlarks.  A bit of white coloration around the collar and a wider song repertoire with the eastern bird is about it.  They do not cross breed as far as anyone knows.  

The bird is not actually a lark, but a member of the blackbird family.  It’s an insect eater and is the state bird of no less than 6 states, Kansas, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming, Nebraska and North Dakota.  

It’s song is special.  The mockingbird may also deliver a similarly complex song and no doubt the tropical rain forests are home to exotic birds with flamboyant songs but for the western prairies, normally home to the bland offerings of magpies, robins, crows, english sparrows, and the screech of raptors, the meadowlark’s song is rhapsodic, imitated only later in summer by song sparrows and warblers.

Sometimes, the nest is set next to a wetland and the meadowlark has neighbors who will help warn of potential intruders.  Neighbors will include Geese, Mallards, Wilson Snipes, Phalaropes, Sandpipers, and Killdeer.   Thanks to DDT, the 1950’s is almost empty of raptors and meat-eaters. The biggest threat to the nest is from a few weasels that survived the DDT scourge and the feet of young boys. 

The boys do not hunt for the nest. The nest is well-hidden, often with a canopy and they do not want to inadvertently make a mis-step and crush the eggs. Even at a young age, the boys see the bird as a symbol of the thrill of spring and its promise.  They want the song to continue even knowing, as always, the bird will stop singing in mid-June to raise its family.

The young boys revel in the outdoors now that spring has released them from parkas, mittens, and flight boots.   Their spirits ride high in the stiff breezes of April and May and the song of the meadowlark holds pure in all winds. The memory of brief sightings and the indelible song will remain for the long lives of the young boys, even when environmental change dictates the experience becomes a rare treat.  Maybe next year, old men hope, a meadowlark will nest close to whatever place they call home.   For them, the bird and its song are cherished symbols of the freedom and beauty of the North American prairie.

Robert Alan Davidson

February, 2019

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